Rat Pack Dot-com Industry

My friend and editor, Amy Haimerl, was mortified. "Have you seen the new Red Herring?" she asked over Saturday afternoon mimosas in New York's East Village. I hadn't, but I'd read about it. It's one of the technology business magazines currently enjoying record ad sales. The June issue is 600-plus pages. I figured Amy was just dissing the competition: She's the managing editor of Silicon Alley Reporter, a glossy that is also garnering record ad sales.

Amy had a salient point, as usual. Bundled with the new Red Herring is a glossy supplement, "Going Public." Together, the two featured ads from Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse First Boston, Merrill Lynch, Lucent, the U.S. Postal Service, Oracle, Lotus, Quest, Sprint, Microsoft, eTrade, Mercedes-Benz, American Express and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, among others.

Inside "Going Public," you can snooze through another round-up of the top 25 IPOs, venture capitalists and investment bankers. But first you have to get past the cover image of a flat-chested cheerleader, complete with pompons and pigtails. Two large pieces of tape cover her mouth. "Hip, Hip, Hush!" reads the headline. Only a couple of forehead crinkles belie the fact that we're supposed to be looking at high-school cheerleader. A gagged high-school cheerleader. This might as well be "Pedophile Today" magazine.

This cover is so 1972. It is patently offensive and in recklessly poor taste. It belongs in a Ms. magazine "No comment" column. It's a poignant reminder of how naive some dot-com titans and editors are. Where were they back in the early 1970s when women were trying to break free of restraints and gags and speak out against discrimination, low pay, domestic violence, rape -- and images that used nubile, young women to sell manly-man stuff like Camaros and guns. Well, they were in elementary school and, later, locked in the basement playing with their Ataris, it seems. Then they grew up to design software, start dot-coms and/or start pseudo-intelligent magazines to hand out at silicon pep rallies.

The dot-com industry mounts self-consciously "hip" television ads that are, as my boyfriend puts it, "devoid of a moral center." They employ lots of 20-somethings and turn out the graying stodgies to pasture. (Economist.com recently ran an ad for "young reporters." Age bias is in, it seems. No wonder these boys tend to forget the women's [and civil] rights' movement.) The dot-com style is to flatten the management structure (inbreeding inefficiency), give everyone "equal," conflated titles, ignore labor rules and work the young guns so hard that they collapse from sheer exhaustion. And yell a lot, then go to parties thumping with bad techno. (So 1987.) Talk about revenge of the nerds.

Back to Red Herring. Granted, the top 11 editors and designers on the masthead are men -- no qualified women have applied, they'd likely say -- but what kind of quick-witted analysis brought the frat broes to this cover concept? (Maybe the four-martini Darren Stephens kind?) When my initial disgust at this cover subsided, I thought perhaps at least the sentiment behind it was decent: I've been saying for years that real journalists must stop cheerleading the sacred tech industry. No illustration needed. Nope, not the point of this cover: "How Webvan's IPO is changing the quiet-period rules" was the actual story. No surprise: Red Herring isn't about to piss on its own rich grave. Maybe a dribble every now and then.

This image is a layer cake of problems: "young" girl as sales tool; silenced woman; gagged cheerleader sexual image. This is the point I'm labeled an uptight, P.C. dyky type who doesn't get the droll wit oozing out of the Red Herring pad. That's when I'm tempted to fly to San Francisco in my black leather halter, platforms and red lipstick and start slashing them with a bull whip. But I won't. (They'd just snap digital shots to promote online used-car sales, anyhow.)

So I'll just respond: Grow the hell up. Try thinking. Be creative and original. Live in the world you sell to. And leave a legacy beyond some cheap male fantasy. And rejoin the year 2000. Dumb cheerleading, indeed, needs to end.

E-mail comments to donna@shutup101.com.

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