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AARP's revamped magazine attempts hip without the replacement

The seniors' group is using its magazine to assure us getting older is, uh, sexy and, oh yeah, fun. The seniors group's magazine is trying to appeal to varying generations of (ssshhh) older people.

April 04, 2004|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

Washington, D.C. — I dunno why you love me baby, I dunno why you care

I'm losin' my memory, I'm losin' my hair

I lost my car keys around here somewhere

I'm part of the furniture, I'm stuck to that chair ...

-- "Sox 'n' Sandals," recorded at age 50 by Graham Parker


The editor in chief of AARP's magazine now bans the use of "senior citizen" because he considers it a "dead" term. One recent issue's cover proclaimed that "Sixty is the new thirty." Another trumpeted a survey of middle-aged singles that found a third of the women who dated preferred younger men. The March/April cover teases with a promo crying: "Help! My Husband Loves Porn."

These are scenes from a high-stakes demographic drama in which the preeminent magazine for seniors puts on a younger face to seduce the aging baby-boom generation -- people ages 40 through 58, some of whom cringe at the thought of ever joining AARP, its wide-ranging discounts be damned.

In this marketing battle, o-l-d has been replaced by s-e-x. Traditional notions of accommodating physical frailty have been replaced by tales of relentless vigor. And three editions -- one for members in their 50s, another for those in their 60s and one for people 70 and older -- are published to navigate generational chasms.

If you're a 50-ish AARP member, you might find this surprisingly seductive, particularly because the magazine is usually well written and knowingly sprinkled with pop-culture asides. (Like: "Seinfeld is 50. Not that there's anything wrong with that.") If you're 60 or older, like 70% of AARP's 35 million members, you might be feeling a bit left out, shoved aside by the kids.

This is the fifth year of AARP's trial-and-error campaign to remake its bimonthly membership magazine into a hip lifestyle journal. The organization, which 20 years ago lowered the membership age from 55 to 50, stopped calling itself the American Assn. of Retired Persons in 1999 in favor of initials , because the "R word" scared many boomers.

Time for a change

Last year, borrowing a page from ESPN The Magazine, it changed the magazine's name from Modern Maturity to AARP The Magazine. It recruited its top two editors from the quirky intellectual journal Utne Reader and the sexed-up physical-culture magazine Men's Health. It religiously puts a celebrity on every cover. (The current issue features 57-year-old new grandfather Billy Crystal. Coming next: Cybill Shepherd, 54, and Kevin Spacey, 44.) Recently, the magazine hired a veteran L.A. entertainment writer as its "celebrity wrangler," in part to convince female actresses that posing for AARP is not career suicide. The magazine long known for five hints for a cleaner house now runs a story on the virtues of tardiness. It celebrates curmudgeons. It publishes a guide to "Viagra etiquette" (Guys, tell her you use it but don't swallow the pill in front of her).

To watch the magazine's editors at work is to witness the wrestling match that virtually every institution is going through--trying to cater to aging boomers without alienating the rest of its customers.

AARP is huge: So huge that it shrugged off about 60,000 membership cancellations late last year by members angered by AARP's support of a Medicare bill that added prescription drug benefits but will partly privatize the system. So huge that its magazine's circulation of 22 million is the biggest in the nation, more than Reader's Digest and TV Guide combined. So huge that it takes six weeks to mail out an issue of the magazine. So huge that a full-page ad in the magazine costs $385,000.

Yet to stay huge, AARP needs to attract younger members at a rate as fast or faster than the older members are dying off. The first wave of America's 78 million boomers began joining AARP when they turned 50 in 1996, but they have tended not to renew their $12.50 annual membership as frequently as older members. Some (like the writer of this article) were too vain to join at all , throwing each membership solicitation in the trash.

The point man charged with overcoming this visceral response is Steve Slon, editor of AARP The Magazine for the past year. Slon is a pleasant, 51-year-old, silver-haired man who in college thought he might become a filmmaker but wound up in the world of magazine editing: Success (for entrepreneurs), Men's Health (for rock-hard abs), and then, three years ago, AARP.

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