JFK Jr., 'George' & rise of pol pop

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Politics and pop culture become bedfellows in the new magazine named for a president and co-founded by the son of a president.

And at least at the start, advertisers are voting with their pocketbooks for the new formula.

Breaking the mold on political magazines is the goal of Editor in Chief John Kennedy and Executive Publisher Michael Berman, co-founders of George, the new political personality magazine that will roar onto newsstands Sept. 26 with a record-setting 175 ad pages.

George is a joint venture of Messrs. Kennedy and Berman's Random Ventures and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, but it's the latter that's providing as much as $20 million to get the publication up and running.

The next challenge will be to capture readers with an edgy, personality driven magazine for what they hail as the "post-partisan" era in American political society.

"We feel there is an opportunity to deal with politicians and political figures as pop icons, to deal with politics as an aspect of popular culture," Mr. Kennedy, 34, said in an exclusive interview with Advertising Age. "People who shape public issues are not just in politics. They're in media, entertainment, finance, sports. In our extravagant definition of politics, we're trying to focus on the personalities that drive the public issues and the process."

Using splashy visuals and probing profiles from top writers, the aim is to capture a dual audience--committed, college-educated, 25-to-49-year-old men and women. Political magazines have traditionally been male-oriented.

In the prototype shown to ad agencies during the past few months, the final page included a regular feature for a guest columnist called "If I Were President."

The buzz was that for the debut, the column will be taken by supermodel Cindy Crawford, who will also be splashed across the cover in a shot by noted fashion photographer Herb Ritts.

George will be sharing the stage with another new--but apparently more traditional, right-leaning--political magazine from Rupert Murdoch. The Weekly Standard makes its debut Sept. 11, with 30 ad pages and distribution of 125,000.

Said George's editor in chief, himself the son of President John F. Kennedy: "Political magazines should look like Mirabella, they should look like Elle. They should look like really inviting, accessible, exuberant youthful magazines."

Mr. Kennedy has eschewed a political career for himself--"why would I want to do that?" he asked at one point. "There are easier ways to launch political careers than starting a magazine."

But public service was in his blood, even if a desire for elected office wasn't.

"I've always been interested in public life and making more people interested in politics," he said. "That's really what drives me, and hopefully that's what will show in the magazine."

George has already captured a fair share of ad revenue and generated an unprecedented amount of prelaunch coverage. Its 175 ad pages will be the new gold standard for a consumer magazine launch. It has already shattered the old record, 166 pages set by Vanity Fair at its global relaunch in March 1983.

Without a doubt, George is the greatest one-two debut in publishing history. With the closing for its second issue still a month away, it has already sold 125 ad pages.

The big question now is can they sustain that momentum through the six issues planned in 1996 and beyond to eventual profitability?

There are no clear signposts. Vanity Fair, for example, showed up with only 55 in its second issue and faded rapidly over the next two years before Tina Brown arrived as editor and turned things around.

People, on the other hand, had only 21 ad pages at its '74 debut and was down to 12 by the second issue before becoming one of the great magazine hits of all time.

Hachette Filipacchi is probably hoping George mirrors the start-up of Elle, one of only five magazines to launch with more than 100 ad pages. Elle quickly set the fashion world on its ear after its 1985 launch and stayed red hot for years.

All this promise from two guys without formal publishing backgrounds. In the fall of '93, after Mr. Kennedy had left his post as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, he teamed up with Mr. Berman, 38, who had previously been the director of a public relations agency called PRNY.

They started Random Ventures and began exploring business opportunities. Kayak manufacturing was one early plan. But eventually, they decided to go into publishing with a political magazine.

By February '95, their search for backers brought them to David Pecker, president-CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines.

There wasn't a great record of success for political magazines even when associated with high-profile political names. Thomas B. Morgan, a former aide to New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, and his then-wife Mary Rockefeller Morgan had failed back in 1977-78 with their magazine Politicks.

And from The Nation to the National Review, nobody seemed to be making much money in the genre in recent years. Despite the skepticism surrounding political magazines, Mr. Pecker was intrigued. "We're market contrarians," he said.

Messrs. Kennedy and Berman's proposal for a smallish political magazine was immediately pumped up under Hachette. Now, plans call for initial distribution of 500,000 copies. Said Mr. Pecker: "For national advertisers, we all know you need a large circulation base magazine going across the top ADI markets across the country."

Victor Navasky, publishing director of The Nation, the lefty weekly that has lost money for most of its existence, worries about the ties to a major publisher.

"Hachette enabled them to go into business, but on the other hand, they are going to have to overcome Hachette and stick with their vision rather than the corporate strategic vision," he said.

So far, however, advertisers seem to be biting at the offering put together by Kennedy/Berman and Hachette. Among the early supporters was Phil Guarascio, VP and general manager-marketing and advertising for General Motors Corp.'s North American Operations. Despite the perils that all new magazines face, George is landing multiple contracts from more than a few advertisers.

"The hype will quiet down, but there is a strong editorial mission and a real reason for our advertisers to be in that magazine," said Debbie Menfi, VP-media director at Deutsch, New York, who has committed to run ads for Schieffelin & Somerset Co.'s Tanqueray gin through the first eight issues.

The largest ad categories are fashion, automotive and beauty. Besides GM and Tanqueray, other early advertisers include Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Estee Lauder, Chanel, Carillon Importers and Tiffany & Co.

Though it's widely portrayed that Mr. Kennedy is out selling the magazine, he estimated he personally visited only about 10% of potential advertisers and no ad agencies.

He prefers to concentrate on the editorial side with Editor Eric Etheridge while leaving the agency sales calls to Mr. Berman and Publisher Elinore Carmody.

To be sure, the Kennedy family name has already created an unprecedented degree of pre-launch publicity that included JFK Jr. cover appearances on New York, Esquire and Newsweek --even though Mr. Kennedy declined to be interviewed for any of the articles.

"The magazine was conceived in part to fill a niche that we felt had not existed before," Mr. Kennedy told Ad Age. "After the '92 election, the way in which people got information about the political process changed a lot. You found politics migrating into channels of popular culture...We thought there was an opportunity to deal with politicians and political figures as an aspect of pop culture."

George has its doubters, though.

"I wish him all the best, but I am skeptical," said David Halberstam, author of a best selling book on the era of President Kennedy ("The Best & the Brightest") as well as a best seller on family media dynasties ("The Powers That Be").

Bringing a new dimension to the hype will be Mr. Kennedy's Sept. 18 appearance on CBS' "Murphy Brown," playing a version of his real life role as editor of George.

Perhaps because of the all the reams of free publicity, the marketing efforts are going to be modest: outdoor advertising in a dozen cities, a 1 million-piece direct mail effort and ads, created in-house, in other Hachette titles.

Mr. Kennedy already seems to be looking forward to the day when the hoopla simmers down and he can begin the business of making a run for the money in publishing.

"I don't think we should sustain the hype," he said. "Hopefully, the hype will subside and people will look at the magazine and let that speak for itself." Copyright September 1995 Crain Communications Inc

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