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Esquire Achievement Not at All Dubious

December 12, 1996|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday

Guests filled Caroline's comedy club in midtown Manhattan the other night to learn the winners of Esquire's 35th annual Dubious Achievement Awards. Editor in Chief Edward Kosner reminded the uninitiated that the honors recognize "stupidity, stupidity, mendacity and general corruption." Dick Morris was named Man of the Year, and Roberto Alomar, the spitting second-baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, was Crybaby of the Year.

The awards, which appear in the January issue, are more than a laughing matter at Esquire. Despite circulation and ad-page declines at the men's magazine, they stand out as one of the most coveted of publishing elements, the annual franchise feature. This particular franchise, like Time's Man of the Year and People's 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year, helps to define the publication and to ensure stronger-than-usual newsstand sales.

Although the privately owned Hearst Magazines declines to break out sales figures for single issues, an Esquire spokesman said that last January's Dubious Achievements outsold by 15% the year's second-biggest draw, the August "Women We Love" issue featuring a sultry Sharon Stone on the cover.

As recounted in a book from last year, Carol Polsgrove's "It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun?" (Norton), a history of Esquire in the 1960s, the Dubious Achievement Awards were inspired by the Harvard Lampoon, which each year named the worst actor, worst movie and so on. "The prizes got a lot of publicity," Polsgrove wrote. "Why couldn't Esquire do something like that but on a larger scale?"

Esquire Editor Harold Hayes asked two of his cleverest staffers, Robert Benton and David Newman (who went on to filmmaking careers, starting with "Bonnie and Clyde"), to devise something similar. The first Dubious Achievement Awards--candid photos with captions, such as Norman Mailer, "White Man of the Year"--appeared in January 1962. As Polsgrove put it, the awards helped reposition Esquire as a magazine that was irreverent and smart.

Time's Man of the Year is a heavyweight of the franchise feature form. Who will it be this year? The 70th annual incarnation, a double issue to be published Dec. 23, is expected to bring in about $17 million in advertising, more than twice the magazine's weekly average.

Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson characterized Man of the Year as "the single most important franchise in the publishing world. It was probably started for mundane reasons, such as attracting advertisers after the Christmas rush and because [co-founder Henry R.] Luce felt bad he hadn't put Charles Lindbergh [the first Man of the Year, in 1927] on the cover the week of his historic flight.

"But now it serves the fundamental Time mandate of telling the history of our time through the people who make it."

On the same day that Time's Man of the Year issue goes on sale, People's year-end double-issue will identify the 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year, an evergreen feature that helps sell more than 2 million copies on newsstands, the magazine's biggest success of the year.

A special team, led in recent years by Executive Editor Susan Toepfer, starts identifying candidates months in advance. The final list comes into view at a morning-long meeting after Labor Day, held this year in a penthouse at the Essex House hotel, at which editors and writers "shout up and shout down" the prospects, according to Managing Editor Landon Y. Jones.

The start of the new year heralds two other annual powerhouses--Sports Illustrated's swimwear issue and Seventeen's prom special.

The women's swimsuit issue brings in more than $20 million in advertising and sells an additional 2 million copies or so on newsstands at the hiked-up price of $4.95, not to mention the television and video spinoffs.

Seventeen's prom issue in March runs down what's hot (a long party dress that makes you look cool in a limo) and what's not (a big, poufy dress that barely fits in a limo). "It's a huge issue for us," said Janice Grossman, the president of advertising and marketing with the K-III Consumer Magazines Group. It sold an extra 228,000 copies last year.

And then there are the annual features that, by tradition or design, offer competitive counterpoint.

Premiere's annual roundup of the 100 most powerful people in the movie business made its debut in May 1990. It was followed six months later by the new Entertainment Weekly's first power list identifying the 101 most powerful people in entertainment. These annual show-biz rankings, like the Fortune 500 (biggest companies) and the Forbes 400 (richest individuals), prompt so many newspapers to write about who have risen and fallen in Hollywood that agents and publicists lobby the magazines for a high position during the months beforehand.

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