The holiday season presents the average American with a multitude of challenges, from dealing with abrasive in-laws to choking down slabs of fruitcake. The most trying of these annual tasks, however, is gift-buying. Finding the time to comb the stores, both online and off, is tricky enough. Tougher still is generating fresh ideas—odds are Dad doesn't need another bottle of cologne.
Glossy magazines are apparently hip to your problem, which explains the yearly glut of gift guides. But which will help your cause, and which aren't worth the $4.95? Aware of your time crunch as the holidays fast approach, Slate dug into the 2005 crop of gift guides, separating the naughty from the nice.
Vogue, December 2005 The Pitch: "100 Glorious Gifts for Every Person on Your List"Target Audience: Women who know the correct pronunciation of "Givenchy."Organizational Spirit: Frenetic and confusing. Despite the cover promise of 100 gifts, the gift guide beginning on page 369 lists only 75 ideas. They're scrunched into nine pages, which means lots of itty-bitty type and eyeball fatigue. The gifts aren't divvied up by intended recipient and a lot also lack prices; either the writer was lazy, or it's one of those cases where, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. Standard Absurdity: A 10-day Nile river cruise for $5,000 from Abercrombie & Kent. Bright Idea: Handmade tree swings that reputedly start at $135 (the Web site lists $147.95). Bottom Line: If you're willing to risk crossed eyes and occasional bouts of sticker shock (a $1,485 umbrella?), Vogue offers some clever ideas that won't break the bank—provided everyone on your list is female. There's a real paucity of suggestions for the beer-swilling boxer wearers in your life, unless those men also harbor secret fascinations with Christian Lacroix chairs and mink jackets. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 3 (out of 10)
Playboy, December 2005 The Pitch: "You've been plenty naughty this year—in very nice ways. Here are a few thoughts for your holiday wish list."Target Audience: Aging lotharios who had their bachelor party in Las Vegas—a party which must never be spoken of again, lest word get back to the missus. Organizational Spirit: Unabashedly retro. Playboy goes for gadget porn, setting its manly gifts on a sleek black background. The products feel like they're out of a 1985 gift guide—handmade chess sets, electric guitars, motorcycles, cuff links. Even the one modern update, a $2,000 Acer laptop, comes branded with the Ferrari insignia—perfect for the man bearing a Tom Selleck mustache and a Members Only jacket. Standard Absurdity: A $20,000 "once in a lifetime" Super Bowl Weekend, complete with game tickets, a Playboy pre-party, and a football autographed by Hugh. Bright Idea: For golfers, TaylorMade Rac irons at $92 to $187 apiece. Bottom Line: Playboy gets points for the layout—this is one of the most eye-catching guides out there. But most prices are ludicrously high ($325,000 for a pair of speakers), and the ideas seem as crusty as the magazine itself, a relic of another era. When gadget geeks congregate today, they talk about HDTVs, not stereo speakers. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 3; at least it's a quick flip from Miss December; centerfold Christine Smith reveals she's turned off by bad breath, laziness, and "anyone not willing to try new experiences."
Outside, December 2005 The Pitch: "Holiday Gear Blowout: The Essential Guide to What's Hot"Target Audience: Junior executives who brag about the time they went rock climbing, got drunk around the campfire, then killed a ridge-nosed rattlesnake with their bare hands. Organizational Spirit: Like Playboy, gadget porn for aging frat boys. The photography is front-and-center, with full-page close-ups of Trek's $1,100 Soho commuter bike and the $2,988 Hummer laptop. Other items are set against backdrops resembling the beds of fancy pickup trucks, and lovingly described in corny prose ("From tailgate to Timbuktu …"). Standard Absurdity: A pair of Levi's 1880 re-issued "XX" jeans for $501. The two Xs stand for "extra extra strong." Who would wear these on an outdoor adventure? Bright Idea: Far more useful are Blundstone's Bloke 490 leather boots, a fashionable-yet-rugged steal at just $140. Bottom Line: Virtually all of the gifts in Outside's guide are priced well beyond the average reader's means, which means that the feature is first an entertainment package, and second, a bit of service journalism—a hunch supported by the lush photography and breathless copy. Still, there are some affordable tidbits worth checking out for the man who claims to feel more at home in the wilderness than in his cubicle. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 5
O at Home, Winter 2005 The Pitch: According to the cover, "Brilliant Gifts Under $50"; the inside copy, however, tones this down to "Great Gifts Under $50."Target Audience: Women who buy presents for each member of their book club and can recite Oprah's favorite things by heart. Organizational Spirit: Straightforward and in love with bright colors. The five-page guide uses sizeable photos, purple-tinged text, and hilariously hyperbolic prose; bath salts are "blissfully escapist." Oprah's minions eschew black and gray in favor of loud pastels; many gifts would coordinate splendidly with Don Johnson's Miami Vice wardrobe. Standard Absurdity: Given the guide's $50 price ceiling, nothing is terribly outlandish. Bright Idea: An AeroLatte milk frother, $32 from Dean & Deluca. Bottom Line: Only the wealthiest 1 percent fails to fret, at least a little, about the financial damage wrought by the gift-giving season. So a budget-conscious list like O at Home's is a welcome sight. But don't look here for ideas for your most beloved; unless you're bucking for a divorce, it's strongly advised you buy your spouse something a wee bit nicer than a set of 30 monogrammed pencils. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 5.5
Cargo, December 2005/January 2006 The Pitch: "235 Genius Wish List Items: Get 'Em. Give 'Em. And Then Steal 'Em Back."Target Audience: 29-year-old male mortgage brokers who enjoy gaming, affordable-yet-elegant Australian wines, and strip bars with dress codes. Organizational Spirit: Disjointed. The gift suggestions are strewn throughout—a few pages in the middle show presents for the women in your life; the gadgets-heavy section called "Gifts for Impossible People" follows much later. There's also a lame front-of-the-book feature on holiday shopping tricks; "Allan H." from Waterloo, Ontario recommends giving out jars filled with candy ("a fun way to save money!"). Standard Absurdity: A $1,062 carrying case for the PlayStation Portable, from French luggage maker Goyard. Bright Idea: The $34.95 iGuy iPod case, from Speck Products; Cargo pitches it as ideal for a niece or female cousin. Bottom Line: It's a pain to flip through the entire magalogue to find the gifts, but Cargo scores points for its sense of humor and nifty geek ideas. The "What a Girl Wants" section is a particular delight; Cargo recommends a pricey vase for women you've yet to bed and a cheaper bath cream for those you already know in the biblical sense. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 6.5
Consumer Reports, December 2005 The Pitch: "Best gifts: Top picks from 3,351 products tested this year."Target Audience: Those who've received instructions to give a DVD player, but don't have the slightest clue what "progressive scan" means. Organizational Spirit: Text-driven and no frills. There isn't a lot of flashy design—just long lists of electronic gadgets, power tools, and cookware that passed Consumer Reports'muster in 2005. There are helpful sidebars that list the best products in certain price ranges, as well as an extensive feature on shopping for HDTVs and selecting the right electronics store. (Stay away from CompUSA.) Plentiful charts give the whole issue the feel of your annual 401(k) report. Standard Absurdity: A $2,000 Sub-Zero wine chiller; the product lays opposite a feature on excellent $10-ish wines. Bright Idea: The Ryobi P810 cordless power drill, listed as a "Best Buy" at $100 (though it has been glimpsed online for around $60). Bottom Line: Consumer Reports isn't a scintillating read, but if you're set on a particular gadget and don't know what model to choose, the magazine can be invaluable. There's also plenty here to entertain geeks, especially those who debate the merits of plasma TVs at cocktail parties; check out the "Quick Picks" box on page 26 if you want to sound knowledgeable. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 6.5; grade it higher if you simply need quick info, rather than a good read.
Cookie, December 2005/January 2006 The Pitch: "75 Holiday Gifts: One-of-a-kind finds for family and friends."Target Audience: Newcomers to motherhood who frequently gather to sip pinot grigio and fret over the mercury levels in canned tuna. Organizational Spirit: Half of the guide is dedicated to parsing out gifts for children in three age groups: 0 to 2, 2 to 4, and 4 to 6. In an odd design choice, the informative copy runs down the middle of each page, seemingly cutting off small portions of the images on either side. You'll have to take Cookie's word for it that the Indian print Mao jacket for toddlers ($72) does, indeed, have a left sleeve. Standard Absurdity: Encouraging a budding artist is a good thing, but does your preschooler really need a $335 set of Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils? Also, isn't $520 a rather lavish outlay for a set of six Moss table knives for Dad? Bright Idea: A four-piece family of rubber duckies for a mere $5, from Grampa's Tub Toys. Bottom Line: Pencils aside, there are some pretty good midpriced gifts for the young 'uns in here. The toys appear to be high-quality, and the accent is on educational products. Where Cookie falls short is adult gifts; once you've set up Junior with a nice set of nontoxic building blocks ($27), will you have the leftover scratch necessary to buy your sister a $1,630 pompom scarf? Thought not. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: If you have kids who've yet to start kindergarten, a 7; otherwise, a generous 2.
Domino, December 2005 The Pitch: "The 350 Most Amazing Gifts (many under $25!)"Target Audience: Thirtysomething women who recently closed on three-bedroom houses and are now obsessed with finding the right table to match their antique sewing machine collection. Organizational Spirit: Like its fellow magalogue Cargo, I can't discern a cohesive plan. The cover reference to 350 gifts seems to refer to items recommended throughout the magazine, not just in the guide that starts on page 138. But that section is easy to follow, with multipage spreads such as "Gifts They Would Never Buy for Themselves" and "Gifts They Can Always Use."Standard Absurdity: Six hand-etched tumblers featuring birds in flight, $535 from crystal maker Moser. Bright Idea: Among the many fine book recommendations, the most appealing may be Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. $21.45 seems like a small price to pay in order to learn the secrets of Havarti and Port du Salut. Bottom Line: Domino offers classy items that likely won't be re-gifted and will earn you a tasteful rep. While some of the items listed verge on the precious (like a $115 hand-stitched mouse doll from Great Britain) and the guarantee of 350 gifts is a bit disingenuous, overall this is a solid resource for nesters and those who love them. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 7 (Disclosure: Deborah Needleman, Domino's editor in chief, is married to Slate editor Jacob Weisberg.)
InStyle, December 2005 The Pitch: "175 ooh-and-aah-inspiring gifts for all the people on your list (from your trendy best friend to man's best friend)."Target Audience: 24-year-old public relations assistants interested in the minutiae of Gwyneth Paltrow's parenting techniques, who are also fit enough to lift this 578-page monstrosity. Organizational Spirit: Sensible, if somewhat head-scratching at times. A series of spreads grouped by recipient, such as "Dad/Brother" and "Mom/Aunt." (Shouldn't one of those be "Dad/Uncle" or "Mom/Sister," for logical consistency?) The layout eschews individual captions in favor of numbers and bottom-of-the-page text blocks that use teensy type; keep some Excedrin handy. Standard Absurdity: Under the "Pets" heading, a $395 Burberry cotton bed for pampered dogs. Bright Idea: Exercise punching bag with boxing gloves, $40 from Bed Bath & Beyond. Bottom Line: Once you adjust to the format, there are some great ideas in this massive guide. A good portion of the gifts are under $200, and even the extravagances are within splurging range (such as a cardigan with a fox-fur collar for "only" $498 at Henri Bendel). The main quibble is InStyle's staid fashion sense; ladies under 30, trust me, your boyfriend does not want a purple cashmere sweater from Ralph Lauren. Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 7.5
New York, Nov. 28 Issue
The Pitch:"Exactly the right present for everyone you know."Target Audience: Management consultants who enjoy quibbling about Upper West Side condo prices while eating tuna tartare. Organizational Spirit: Whimsical, with an air of decadence. The main layout consists of one-page rundowns on the ideal gifts for grandfathers, 5-year-olds, bosses, and 10 other archetypal friends, relatives, and lovers. There's also a helpful "Twenty Under $20" spread, as well as a clever chart on how different people interpret gifts. Standard Absurdity: An $81,750, 79.40-carat Christian Dior ring; to New York's credit, they file this under the heading "Over-the-Top."Bright Idea: From the section meant for a "younger sister who's just signed her first lease," a $99.99 ElectroLux cordless rechargeable vacuum. Bottom Line: New York successfully incorporates some wit and literary merit into the traditional gift-guide framework. Save for the ghettoized "Twenty Under $20" suggestions, most of the items here won't be in your budget unless you receive a fat Wall Street bonus. But it's still a good read, especially the chart on gift interpretation. Good to know that buying an expensive bottle of Scotch for your office Secret Santa is code for "Gimme some nookie."Naughty-or-Nice-O-Meter: 9