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The Glossies: Why AOL TW Must Diehttp://foliomag.com/ar/marketing_why_aol_tw/index.htm
Yeah yeah yeah: Everybody and his brother already knows that the union of AOL and Time Warner was the worst merger in the history of the known universe, and that the marriage was doomed pretty much from the moment the delusional couple stumbled into the, uh, corporate honeymoon suite. (Insert joke here about the shareholders being the only ones who got screwed.) All the reasons are, in retrospect, excruciatingly obvious, beginning with the fact that the bride (AOL) pretended that she was way wealthier and more established (not to mention prettier) than she really was.
The groom (Time Warner) is right to be pissed off, the reasoning goes, because his true love—who once seemed to glow with youthful charisma and boundless promise—turned out to be a two-faced floozy who’d led on previous suitors (advertisers, partners, auditors) with overpromises and more than a bit of not-so-artful dissembling.
But beyond that unfortunate reality, there’s another reason that the marriage is doomed. It’s not polite to discuss it, but if you were able to have this couple over to your house for a dinner party, you and all your guests would later be unable to stop yourselves from speaking the truth: The bride is STUPID!
Not just sorta dumb. I’m talking intellectually impaired. Feebleminded. Ox-headed.
Oh, she was such a beautiful bride—until she opened her mouth!
I’ve been thinking about the future of this marriage because of AOL TW’s recent decision to make some of its big-name magazines available only through AOL, which has involved killing their free-access Web sites. People, Entertainment Weekly, In Style, and Teen People have already made the transition to AOL-only sites, and others will follow.
Never mind that “content” (especially magazine-centric content) as an online magnet is an idea whose time came and went ages ago. In a way, it’s hard to blame AOL for this boneheaded move simply because it doesn’t have a lot of cards in hand, and it had to offer some reasons to justify charging $21.95 a month.
No, the bigger problem is that the juxtaposition of AOL’s content with Time Inc.’s content makes AOL seem downright learning-disabled.
I’ve had an AOL account for a decade, but I seldom use anything other than AOL e-mail. But lately I’ve been signing on and poking around. And I’ve been utterly appalled. Starting with a welcome screen that throws a few headlines your way and sells you stuff (like digital cameras and computers), the editorial standards throughout AOL are far below those of just about any mass-market magazine. The packaging is uniformly witless, bordering on tone deaf.
An AOL Careers & Work channel hotlink reads, “Resume Do’s and Don’ts: Learn these tips before sending your resume.” (Is this meant for future AOL layoffees, perhaps?) A Sexual Health channel promo reads, “Exploring Orgasm: Researchers have figured out why sex feels so good to guys.” (Even the pervs in the chat rooms don’t need that explained.) An AOL Health channel hotlink reads, simply, “Socialize! Be friendly. Loners get health problems.”
I am not kidding. It really said that. It really, truly said, “Be friendly.”
And I’m not being uncharitable here; I didn’t pick the worst packaging throughout AOL to make a point. These bits are entirely, numbingly representative of the tone and overall level of sophistication of AOL’s editorial voice.
If you should chance upon a link to a Time Inc. magazine’s content, though, it’s like vaulting out of grade school right into college. There’s a common fallacy that many Time Inc. titles are lowest-common-denominator pubs because they’re mass-market. The culture and sensibility of these LCD titles, the thinking goes, should mesh quite comfortably with AOL because AOL is nothing if not LCD. But mass-market does not automatically equal stupid.
Regular readers of this column know that I’ve slammed a good number of Time Inc. titles. But my criticism of, say, In Style was never about it being too LCD in its approach and voice. In Style is actually a cleverly packaged, cunningly constructed media product that speaks to its LCD audience with remarkable finesse. My quarrel with In Style isn’t about its I.Q., but that it deploys its editorial intelligence to aid and abet the worst impulses of the celebrity-industrial complex.
As Time Inc.’s magazines have gotten hipper and edgier and smarter and more self-aware, AOL has stayed dumb. Fifth-grade reading-level dumb. (No offense to fifth graders.) AOL still seems to think that mass = stoopit.
From the earliest days of the merger, the Time Inc. folks I know have been rejecting AOL’s sensibility like a bad kidney. Segregating the online content of Time Inc.’s titles into the AOL ghetto isn’t going to do anything but reduce audience exposure to Time Inc.’s remarkable brands and enduringly compelling content. To bring AOL up to Time Inc.’s standards is going to require more than a bit of content-grafting; it’s going to require a wholesale reeducation program that neither bride nor groom seems enthused about embarking on.
The tragedy of this marriage only compounds itself. AOL’s response to me, I suppose, would be something along the lines of “Be friendly.” Instead, I’ll be blunt: The bride is not only a cheap whore, but there’s quite possibly no chance of the groom ever having an intelligent conversation with her.
Simon Dumenco regrets to inform you that he can be reached at email@example.com .