ADVERTISING is the lifeblood of most women's magazines. Yet it often involves an uneasy alliance between editors striving to maintain editorial independence and advertisers seeking a ``supportive editorial atmosphere'' for their ads. The result can be a subtle blurring of focus, a journalistic game of footsies that leaves readers wondering: Where do the articles about food, beauty, and fashion leave off and the ads begin? In an 11-page essay entitled ``Sex, Lies, and Advertising,'' appearing in the new ad-free Ms., former editor Gloria Steinem recounts her often-futile efforts to attract ads for the feminist magazine without supplying ``complementary copy.'' She tells of trying to refute male advertisers' stereotypes that women don't buy cars, computers, insurance, or financial services.
Ms. Steinem also replays a lunchtime conversation with Leonard Lauder, president of Est'ee Lauder, who insisted he would never advertise in Ms. because Est'ee Lauder sells ``a kept-woman mentality.'' (Never mind that the company was started by his mother.)
Jean Kilbourne, a media critic in Newton, Mass., and a visiting scholar at Wellesley College, explains the problem in an interview. ``The culture in general sets women up as sex objects and men as success objects,'' Dr. Kilbourne says. ``Men are supposed to be rich and powerful so they can have beautiful young women. Young women are set up to think that their goals should be to find a rich man.''
Despite enormous changes in women's lives during the past 20 years, the image of women in ads is still ``terrible,'' she says. ``We still get sexy young women used to sell everything - not just makeup and lingerie, but autos, lawnmowers, cigarettes, and alcohol.''
One stereotype, the ``demented housewife,'' is less prevalent now, Kilbourne notes. But ads still feature ``the woman who's obsessed with cleanliness and spots on her dishes. There's a lot of playing on guilt - worrying about not being a good enough wife, mother, or housekeeper.''
Many products advertised in women's magazines ``depend on women being insecure and anxious, particularly about their bodies,'' she continues. ``If anything, it's gotten worse. Now we're supposed to look impossibly young as we age, to have cosmetic surgery, to make $100,000 a year, and to be great mothers, spending lots of quality time with our children. It's insane.''
And while ads today acknowledge that women are under great pressure because of the demands of raising children and working outside the home, Kilbourne says, ``Advertising reduces every problem to a personal problem, with the product as a solution.
``The true solution is political. We need what virtually every industrialized nation in the world has - a national child care policy and family leave. What we get offered instead is Hamburger Helper and Enjoli perfume, which advertises that `you can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let him forget he's a man.'''
Although Kilbourne believes women's magazines try to maintain editorial independence, advertisers exert enormous pressure. As a result, she says, ``It would require a major turnaround to really change women's magazines. I'm sure everyone will be looking closely to see what's going to happen to Ms. I hope they'll survive. That's the real question: Can a magazine in America survive without ads?''