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Citizen Media Critic: Chicken Soup for the Soul Magazine

The best-selling book series begets a magazine—and never-before-seen Elvis photos

- July 25, 2005
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The opening letter from Chicken Soup for the Soul co-founders Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen in the debut issue of Chicken Soup for the Soul magazine (which hits newsstands tomorrow) begins with the salutation "Dear Friend," and ends "With love" "from Jack and Mark." As a reader who prefers that her magazines maintain a polite Economist-like I-don't-know-you-and-you-don't-know-me distance, the assumed intimacy is a bit disconcerting. But it's precisely that sense of intimacy that built the original Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books into a multi-billion dollar franchise with a stultifying array of niche variations (Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul's NASCAR-branded Xtreme Race Journal for Kids) and if the formula is truly brand-extensible, will propel the Chicken Soup for the Soul magazine into the La-Z-Boy recliner pockets formerly occupied by Good Housekeeping, Southern Homes & Gardens and the occasional Reader's Digest.

The ubiquitous Chicken Soup for the Soul book series began with an anthology of stories Canfield and Hansen collected while touring as motivational speakers. The tales were short inspirationally-minded vignettes about Average Joes triumphing over adversity, written in a highly personal way that heavily emphasized the positive aspects of human nature and, not surprisingly, appealed to other Average Joes. (As it happens, the aspirational Average Joe demographic is a large one and over 100 million of them bought the book.) The magazine is, according to the co-founders, designed to deliver the same sort of uplifting, life-affirming wisdom the books promise—"a slice of all that's right with the world" as Canfield and Hansen put it. "Inside every issue, you will find hope, joy, love, peace, fun and games, tears and healing, and lots of good information on a broad range of topics and subjects that affect you, your family and you world on a daily basis." All that for a mere $3.95.

The promise of hope, joy, love and peace at an affordable price is the bedrock of the self-help industry's commercial and cultural power, and the success of service-oriented magazines (women's mags in particular) readily demonstrate its cross-medium mutability, but Chicken Soup magazine's offerings are weaker than the standard fare in that genre. The split-cover inaugural issue (Fall 2005) features two black-and-white photos of a young Elvis Presley for the magazine's cover story, "Taking Care of Business: Photographing the KING," which features a series of "rare or never-before-published" shots of Elvis taken by Al Wertheimer, a photographer whose claim to fame is, well, photographing Elvis. Another featured story is "Be Your Own Boss with PartyLite," a piece about a multi-level marketing franchise that involves selling candles to friends and acquaintances at parties you host in your home a la Tupperware (that classic piece of 1950s Americana that's seemingly indestructible—both metaphorically and literally). Another cover line, "armchair travel," promises to "bring Miami into your living room"—an outcome of questionable desirability even for those of us who like Miami. Another story encourages readers to "dress up with your friends" by going "vintage." There's also the obligatory service-book diet story ("miracle diet: it could save your life") and the bonus "grandmothers' favorite recipes." Not wanting to judge a book-based magazine by its cover, inspection of the related stories contained therein reveals a fairly shallow feature well. The PartyLite story is the most substantive, and it's still uncomfortably treacly ("It's PartyLite's power to empower, and dream to build dreams, which earns it Chicken Soup for the Soul Magazine's first Making A Difference Award."), especially if you've never pictured Horatio Algier as an Amway salesman. The Elvis photographs are captivating, but the quality of the printing and paper undermine their presentation and the moral of the associated Chicken Soup-ready story seems to be that the photographer was merely in the right place at the right time, which would appear to contradict the Chicken Soup ethos. It also seems to imply that the feature's impetus was editorial access to the photos, rather than the story itself. Even the curious Miami-in-your-living-room feature puts a little too much armchair in the "armchair travel," with sidebars featuring words to learn in Spanish ("yes=si," "hello=hola") that even the most multiculturally oblivious of readers would have probably picked up from Miami Vice reruns. For an aspirational magazine, the aspirations aren't very high.

If the ad sales are any indication—Bush's Baked Beans, Singer sewing machines, Country Crock mashed potatoes—the magazine's psychographic target market would appear to be the Greatest Generation June Cleavers who make casseroles from canned soup products, do their own housecleaning, thank you very much, watch Oprah on TV but don't buy the magazine and secretly think Martha might have had it coming. The magazine is generally tonally and topically consistent in catering to this demographic, but there are enough strange aberrations to make the reader wonder if part of the Memphis-based publication's editorial production is being outsourced to an indie mag in Soho or Palo Alto. There's an odd self-awareness about the magazine's kitsch factor, for example—a front-of-the-book travel piece suggests that visitors to California drop by "Tail o' the Pup, the tacky hotdog-shaped restaurant" in L.A. and another piece features an interview with the inventor of the Pet Rock that includes tips regarding what to do if "you think you have the next Flowbee or Grip-n-Flip." And the product recommendations are sometimes arbitrary or out-of-place given the other content. (Chicken Soup readers don't know how to say "yes" in Spanish, but are in the market for an electronic pocket translator and an online service that "takes social networking to a whole new level"?) These oddities are especially apparent when juxtaposed against the original Chicken Soup stories.

And that failure to emulate the original brand is the primary weakness of the magazine. Chicken Soup magazine may not have the production efficiencies of a Condé Nast or Time, Inc.-incubated launch, but it has an established and popular platform with a seemingly limitless capacity for brand extensions, Walmart distribution and an endless reservoir of reader-generated material. Those factors alone give it a tremendous advantage over most independently-launched publications. The concept is brilliant, but the execution leaves much to be desired. If Chicken Soup mag can't manage to better reflect the identity and storytelling strengths of the book series, it will have to compete on the current state of its editorial quality—and at the moment grandma's recipes are better found in Ladies Home Journal.

"These are stories that will make you laugh and cry," writes Chicken Soup magazine editor in chief Mignonne Wright in her first editor's letter. If only they did.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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