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Targeting a wider market

The New Yorker's caption-writing cartoon board game makes the leap from bookstores to the Target discount chain.

August 10, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York

HERE'S a cartoon that you won't see in one of the nation's most prominent magazines: As a family climbs out of a minivan in the parking lot of a Target store, the mother reads from her shopping list: "Let's see . . . 400 Pampers, 16 coconut cups for the patio, a pair of gaucho pants and, uh, that New Yorker magazine game."

It's not just a gag, though. In the latest expansion of its brand name into the retail market, the board game version of the New Yorker's weekly cartoon caption contest has just gone on sale at Target stores nationwide.

And although it may seem like an incongruous match between the discount store's unapologetically mass appeal and the magazine's upscale cachet, the people involved don't find it strange at all.

When the New Yorker's cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, talks about the deal, he sounds more like an MBA candidate than an editorial staffer at the august literary weekly.

"These cartoons are accessible to people, and they're an exportable part of the magazine for its brand identity," Mankoff said. He is also president of the magazine's Cartoon Bank, a program that markets a variety of spinoff products. "You never know for sure what will happen, but we're hoping this will take hold," he added, referring to the marketing campaign in more than 1,500 Target stores.

These days, cashing in on "brand identity" -- whether by selling spinoff products or sponsoring high-profile events -- is par for the course for American magazines. The National Review and the Nation have sponsored politically themed cruises on which their contributors give lectures and mix it up over mai tais in the grand ballroom with star-struck readers. Rolling Stone, among other magazines, churns out books and anthologies drawing from past issues. Vanity Fair boosts its prestige with its annual high-profile Oscar-night party in Hollywood.

But where does a magazine draw the line? Would Eustace Tilley, the monocled New Yorker dandy who personifies the magazine's highbrow appeal, shop at a Target store? He'd have trouble finding one. There are only five branches in New York City, and none is located in Manhattan.

Target and the New Yorker, however, are hardly strangers. The store made headlines two years ago when it bought out all the ads in an August issue of the award-winning magazine. While some suggested that this threatened the separation of the magazine's editorial and advertising functions, Editor David Remnick disagreed.

"When I heard they wanted to buy all these ads, I said, 'Go knock yourself out,' " Remnick recalled in a recent phone interview. "Any idea that this would affect our independence and freedom is ridiculous."

As for the sale of the cartoon game at Target, Remnick was unruffled.

"With all due respect to the New York Times and the Washington Post, the last time I looked I could get a coffee mug, all kinds of doodads ancillary to those newspapers, and I don't think it compromises their news columns," he said.

"Once we had a great cover dividing New York into faux Yiddish and Afghani neighborhoods," Remnick said. "It became a shower curtain and a poster, and it brought in a lot of money. . . . I don't think it undermined Western civilization, much less the standards of the New Yorker."

The cartoon caption game first appeared earlier this year in Barnes & Noble, Borders and many independent bookstores. And while Target may be a more difficult market, officials are hoping that the game will reach customers who like the cartoon game, even if they don't enjoy the magazine itself.

The magazine version of the game invites readers to submit captions for previously drawn cartoons. Their suggestions are winnowed down to three finalists by judges. Readers vote on the winner, published the following week. The game, which is featured on the last page of the magazine, attracts 7,000 to 10,000 entries per week, a healthy chunk of the New Yorker's roughly 1 million weekly readers.

Based on this popularity, the magazine agreed last year to license the concept for a board game to Eric Poses, a Santa Monica-based entrepreneur. Customers can buy New Yorker umbrellas, snow globes, desk diaries, CD-ROMs, coffee-table books and T-shirts, and even more products are coming into the pipeline. So why not a board game?

The New Yorker "is always looking for opportunities to help grow the business" beyond the physical magazine, said associate publisher Daniella Welles, and the caption game "is not just an add-on."

"We see a lot of opportunity here," Welles said.

As for the new campaign at Target, she added, "They're a very dynamic marketing partner. They've been very creative in working with the magazine to build off its brand loyalty."

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