This Esquire download should take only 5 minutes

Picking on the new Esquire augmented reality cover is a bit too easy. Sure, we could laugh at the idea that consumers will carry the physical magazine over to their home office, boot up the computer, spend five minutes downloading software, and then hold the magazine cover up to the web cam to get an enhanced experience. Of course it’s crap, a 2009 rendition of the 1990s’ :CueCat barcode reader that Forbes and Wired tried to get you to use at the tail end of the last internet bubble. Remember that? You plugged a device into your computer, which took about five minutes, and then held the magazine up to the device to get an enhanced experience …

The :CueCat bombed, of course. Wikipedia rattles off the disaster: PC World called it one of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time”; Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “you have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can.” By 2005, a liquidator web site tried to unload 2 million of the ugly plastic devices for 30 cents each.

So here we go again; a national magazine asking people to jump through hoops to connect a print vehicle with a web communication. Why are we repeating history, the mistake of interactivity for interactivity’s sake? Magazines, like books, have their place in life, and no one wants to hold one channel (Esquire) up to another (a computer) to get an enhanced experience. The augmented-reality chore is like walking into a restaurant and having the waiter give you a burger sans bun, and then inviting you back to the kitchen to help the cook finish the ensemble.

It’s not a facelift, it’s a positioning strategy

Esquire is not led by dummies. They know they are asking too much, that augmented reality is a fad that will too pass, and that most users will never see the super-web-cam result. (Someone said risque women posing as elves are involved, but that’s just hearsay.) Esquire’s editors also realize print is under pressure — the once uberhot Maxim magazine recently shuttered its print edition in the UK, and Esquire’s total ad pages booked are down 24% year over year — and anything they can do to differentiate themselves in the marketplace helps. So Esquire is rolling out a series of physical gimmicks (such as the recent E-Ink cover), all good for PR, which generates buzz among readers, which gets advertisers to consider pushing media budgets Esquire’s way.

Sure, we don’t want to hold magazine covers up to web cams any more than we want to build hamburgers at a restaurant. But Megan Fox can only go so far. Esquire, all we can say is well played — you’re resonating with a stupid technological gimmick that makes us view you differently in your competitive set. No, we won’t head for the web cam … but we may just sign up for a subscription.

5 thoughts on “This Esquire download should take only 5 minutes

  1. Ben:
    Magazines obviously believe they have to try everything. I used to oversee all the creative for MPA, working with the board that ran it. I love magazines. Reading them, holding them, feeling the paper. But they’re going to need more than gimmicks to own a digital experience. Don’t know what the answers are, but I do know, from working with lots and lots of Gen Y writers on the project that everything Chris Anderson says is true. Content will be sourced for free and sought for free. Magazines are going to have to try and find a new model, perhaps like Charles Sennott’s GlobalPost that works in an entirely new way and gets rid of the crazy overhead. Gimmicks may get you through a year or two, but watch out. When the next great gen takes over, we may get a lot closer to paperless content.

  2. I’m inclined to agree, Ben. Gimmicks won’t reinvent print. It’s trite to say it, but high quality content that works well in that portable, very flexible medium will save it. I don’t particularly worry for the future of The Economist and The New Yorker. They have outstanding products that, for the most part, are more enjoyable in the printed form. We’ll see lots of gimmicks from publishers stuck in the middle, without must-have content or mass cheap distribution. Nowadays, it’s better to be either The New Yorker or the free paper I read and threw away on the subway this morning. Getting stuck in the middle is a bad place.

  3. Exactly.

    Michael Porter has a line near the beginning of “Competitive Advantage” where he talks about becoming “stuck in the middle.” Being all things to all people and only moderately good at any of them is a bad place — as you state, Brian.

    It’s a good lesson for all of us, outside of the print world. If you want to survive, you need to focus and stand out.

    I don’t think gimmicks will help Esquire get ad pages back, but the buzz around them is an interesting positioning strategy. Perhaps it’s similar to a CP+B play — it’s not about the real message, it’s about the secondary buzz.

  4. On augmented reality: Baby steps. I think AR will learn to walk soon, and maybe even run. Being a harsh on the AR baby because it’s ugly and shits itself often, not cool. Blame the parents, not the kid.

    Thought Gadgets blog
    posted: Dec 17, 1903
    title: Wright Flyer has no room for luggage, piss poor beverage service, and no in-fight movie.

    On the future of the magazine: I’d suggest getting those Google Wave folks back in that room they reinvented email in and ask them to recycle the magazine. Sure at first it will suck, but once everyone gets an invite readership should spike.

  5. Fair point, Todd. And I LOVE the 1903 Thought Gadgets concept. May have to riff on that.

    The distinction I tried to make is Esquire’s move is not about AR working or not, or being the future or not, but rather tacking on the gimmick for secondary market PR. It’s really no different that putting nudity on the cover; it’s a shock to wake up readers and advertisers.

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