The best gift, they say, comes from the heart. Or is the one you make yourself. Or—best of all—is giving, not receiving. But try selling those Hallmark platitudes to your anguished nephew or irate spouse come Christmas morning, and you're guaranteed a few years of coal-filled stockings. The heartfelt and the homemade have their place, but the shiny, store-bought treasure is usually the one that ensures an appreciative smile (not to mention the equal generosity in return). Fortunately for those among us who don't have the energy to troll department stores, the magazine industry comes together each December to offer its suggestions. The helpful elves of the glossies devote their pages to splurges and bargains for everyone from your grandmother to your gardener.
Perusing the sheer number of magazine gift guides, however, is a struggle in itself. If you can't take long lunch breaks to amble through malls and boutiques, then you also can't devote hours to reading what Elle, Esquire, Wired, Hooters (more on that later), O, and dozens of other publications recommend you buy—not when there's just nine shopping days until Christmas. With your valuable time (and laziness) in mind, Slate undertook to shop the shoppers, to separate the naughty from the nice.
Hooters, November/December 2009
The Pitch: Two guides, one magazine! "Gotta have gadgets for really good boys and girls for the holidays" up front, a similarly gadget-heavy "Holiday Gift Guide" somewhere in the middle.
Target Audience: Restaurant regulars; your awkward 14-year-old cousin; guys who legitimately miss Home Improvement.
The Approach: Boys love toys. Hooters doesn't much go in for variety or surprise; a few tech-y splurges serve mostly to provide a momentary distraction from the sorority of Hooters girls.
High: The first, more aspirational guide doesn't bother sharing trivialities like prices, but a little digging reveals that most items are in the realm of dude-fantasy— topping out at around $8,500 for a Yamaha off-road all-terrain vehicle. Dad will probably get one of those around the time that his little girl gets a pony, but they can both dream.
Low: The middle-of-the-mag guide offers relative bargains: a $199 GPS system from Nextar, a $34.99 protective iPhone case. The facing page is an ad for Hooters paraphernalia that's cheaper still. The "sexy bottlesuit" beer cozy screams value.
The Verdict: Red-handed gentlemen of the world, I can now definitively call your bluff: You are not reading this periodical for the articles.
O, The Oprah Magazine, December 2009
The Pitch: "The O List, Holiday Edition: 46 genius ideas, from the delicious to the decadent, the smart to the unexpected."
Target Audience: Oprah's done her best to be all things to all people—or at least most things to most people—but her magazine's aimed squarely at the heart and soul of her 4 p.m.-acolyte bloc: thrifty ladies nationwide.
The Approach: The guide is organized loosely according to affect—"bold," "romantic," "decadent," and "delicious"—but the lines aren't clearly drawn. (Why a chocolate bar is romantic as opposed to decadent or delicious is anyone's guess.) What all the objects share is a general wholesomeness—chocolate is about as naughty as this guide gets—and a commitment to value. Discounts on select items in the form of an O code knock the prices down a significant peg.
High: Splurges are a relative rarity. A purse covered in leather rosettes from Clever Carriage ($585) is the most expensive item in the magazine. Most of the other big-ticket items are gadgets, like the Haier F-Series 22" LCD HDTV ($299) and an iPod Nano ($179).
Low: Sweets and trinkets fill out the low-end options. Candy Basket's gel squares ($6 for 15) and mason jars of cookie mix ($10) might add a gym regimen to your list of New Year's resolutions.
The Verdict: Although there's not much sex appeal to Oprah's good-sense, good-housekeeping guide, it should take care of Mom and Aunt Bea—who, to be fair, probably don't want an all-terrain vehicle, anyway.
Esquire, December 2009
The Pitch: "A man's guide to the holidays."
Target Audience: Cavemen who use hair gel—the sort who might shop for a last-minute present at the drugstore, accidentally tell a kid there ain't no Santa Claus, then spend several pages salivating over high-end electronics.
The Approach: Esquire's guide might be subtitled The Complete Idiot's Guide To Surviving the Holiday Season. It goes a little lighter than most on actual products in favor of tips and techniques, from playlists to recipes to get you through the season. Bells and whistles are liberally dispensed.The Rockettes, for instance, make a several-page, mostly unexplained cameo. Short of Kris K. himself, it's hard to think of a more obvious choice, but the classics are classics for a reason. Here, they're gathered for a quick photo op with writer Barry Sonnenfeld, who has evidently gotten what he wanted for the holidays. Plus, Gossip Girl's Michelle Trachtenberg puts in a cameo as a holiday elf, leading the way through the magazine's "Man at His Best" section. 'Tis the season for a little T&A.