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.
High: A Ferragamo tux ($2,950), less a traditional gift than recommended attire for a New Year's Eve holiday party; a Lenovo ThinkPad ($1,999).
Low: A section devoted to eleventh-hour grabs, from gossip magazines at the grocery store to storage bins at Kmart. Even the magazine concedes: This last should be filled with an I.O.U. for an actual gift.
The Verdict: A gift guide that skimps on gifts is a hard one to wholeheartedly recommend.But if you're the kind of guy who thinks his presence is gift enough around the holidays, here's a manual for making it indispensible. (The secret: Teach that presence how to make grilled-cheese sandwiches.)
Elle, December 2009
The Pitch: "135+ cheap and chic gifts—for even the toughest on your list."
Target Audience: Style mavens of recently reduced circumstance; young public relations assistants of perennially reduced circumstance.
The Approach: Elletackles gift-giving by interest groups, imagining personas for its readers that are occasionally flattering ("The Gourmand," who will like a fondue set or a knife rack) and occasionally not ("The Bookworm" might be OK, but someone should really have a word with "The Partygoer," who apparently needs a hangover-helper kit in her stocking.) Others, like "The Sailor," are merely confusing. (Is Elle courting naval subscriptions?) The densely packed pages, some with as many as 16 items, make navigating the guide an eye-taxing proposition, but gifts of note are called out as "Editor's Picks." Whether you, like Editor Joann Pailey, have an especial yen for a Where's Waldo-ish printed Lanvin umbrella ($228) is another matter.
High: Few and far between. All in all, Elle does a fine job of keeping its gifting within restrained budgets. Riveting Rosies, well-accustomed to you-can-do-it articles about high-powered working women who can have it all, may be startled to find that the more expensive indulgences (a taupe and chartreuse Bottega Veneta duffel bag, $2,100; a Banana Republic wool toggle coat, $300) are earmarked for men.
Low: While there are cute finds on the cheap—a Day-Glo Jonathan Adler pill-case key-chain in the shape of a capsule, $20, for example—there are also several trompe l'oeil winks at lusher times. Can't afford a gift from Tiffany's? How about a Tiffany-blue porcelain box from same ($75)—the gift, de-gifted? Not flush enough for an iconic quilted Chanel handbag? Try a set of Assouline Chanel books in a quilted slipcover ($550)? Or perhaps you've recently maxed out the gold card—here, take this Jeremy Scott for Longchamp tote in a gold-card print motif ($345)!
The Verdict: A good mix of surprising new ideas, actually desirable products, and the requisite just-for-the-label trifles (Hermès "memory card game," $215).
Outside, December 2009
The Pitch: "Our favorite holiday loot, with the perfect present for every person on your list … and one or two things for you, too."
Target Audience: Wilderness man (temporarily) cubicle-bound.
The Approach: Color coordination, which works better as an organizing principle than you might expect. Bonus points for the appealing presentation and products styled in semi-crumpled wrappings.(Just try not to get giddy at the primal sight of torn tissue paper.)
High: Tech toys are the big-ticket buys. The Garmin Nuviphone G60 ($299), a SmartPhone with trail-ready GPS, will keep hikers happy, though one wonders if in our Age of the iPhone and BlackBerry, it's really a worthwhile purchase. A Tag-Heuer watch (the 43mm Aquaracer Automatic) tops the chart at $1,800.
Low: Most of the magazine's suggestions fall in the $50-$200 range, but a few stocking stuffers, like Smart Wool socks ($14) and Plymouth gin ($25) are sprinkled throughout.
The Verdict: The downside is a lack of variety in what is already a small guide: four different liquors grace an eight-page spread, and four watches from different brands all look strikingly similar to Rolex's classic Submariner. (For comparison, just turn to the back cover, where the thing itself is advertised.) There's also a surprising omission: women. Outside's audience is no doubt heavily male, but only a single item, a Lole marled-wool sweater ($100) is specifically for the ladies. (A few other options are given in passing, but not displayed.) True, many nonclothing items are technically unisex—a lady camper will get as much use out of a Leatherman Wave multitool ($99) as a gent, name notwithstanding—but overall, the boys'-club vibe is strong.
Wired, December 2009
The Pitch: "What we want: No bayberry candles, no fruitcake, no neckties (well, one necktie). 100 great gifts we're giving—and hoping to get—this holiday season.
Target Audience: Anyone who can marshal three or more talking points in a Kindle vs. Nook debate.
The Approach: Put it all out there. Wired doesn't bother to distinguish between gift types or giftee types, preferring to number its offerings 1 through 100. Concise (and cogent) descriptions accompany each item, and the editors enliven the list by using this very public platform to send none-too-subtle hints. ("Hey! Husband! Pony up and spot me these crazy riding boots," commands Story Editor Sarah Fallon about a pair of Tretorn Falsterbos, $650.)
High: Wiredopens with a bang:Item No. 1, a custom hardwood-and-glass PC, costs $16,500. If there are any still-liquid dot-com millionaires left on earth, they probably appreciate the hat tip. The guide rarely ascends quite that high again. In comparison, the $7,500 McIntosh MXA60 shelf stereo seems positively middle-class.
Low: The cheap selections feel, by necessity perhaps, a little dryer than the expensive ones, but if anyone is capable of getting excited about an electronic-notepad-cum-mousepad ($15) or a set of 26 magnetized spheres ($30), it's probably the Wired crowd.
The Verdict: This guide likely won't suffice for everyone on your list, but you'll find just the right thing for the microchip aficionado in your life. The writers do a particularly good job of explaining why exactly every item they've selected is cool, even if lay-readers may need a glossary for some of the more cryptic tech specs. (If you don't know your ISO light sensitivity from your output waveforms, you may need to consult Wikipedia.) Nevertheless, you'll appreciate being in the know—and all the more likely to pardon the occasional marital TMI.
[Disclosure: I work for Condé Nast, which owns Wired.]
New York, Nov. 23, 2009, Issue
The Pitch: "Our annual anxiety-relieving guide to matching the perfect gift with delighted giftee, including 100 gifts under $100 that outperform their price tag …"
Target Audience: Creative-class midlevels who moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn to be cooler; creative-class midlevels who moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan to go against the tide (i.e., to be cooler).
The Approach: Gifts by price (100 under $100), by neighborhood (complete with maps), and gifts by request from real, live New Yorkers. The "You Ask, We Find" section turns dreams into realities—on the page, at least. Photogenic urbanites make their pleas—ranging from dance lessons for a ginger-haired filmmaker to Fanta-orange headphones for a video game director—which are then dutifully scouted and photographed (but not actually purchased). Of course, a few New Yorkers' motives are dubious. Does dentist Barry Cutright really want a Harry & David fruitcake, or is he trying to goose some post-holiday cavity business?
High: A stainless-steel Rolex Daytona ($14,250), which, in all fairness, is the explicit request of real-life trader Scott Kaplow, 23, who'd like either that or his ex-girlfriend back. Maybe she'll return for the Valentine's Day issue.
Low: We get it: These are thrifty times. But even the most venturesome editor is going to have a hard time making an under-$5 gift look like anything but an under-$5 gift. We don't want to be around when that special someone finds a Yummy Breakfast key-chain ($4.95), a ballpoint pen ($1.95), or a decorative pack of tissues ($1.49) in her stocking. These are the sorts of gifts that say, I care just enough to say Gesundheit.
The Verdict: For breadth and depth, New York is the gold standard. It skews a little heavy on the tchotchkes, but there's no finicky friend or family member it can't appease. Get ready to squint at some very tiny photos, though; volume does have its downside. In a magazine, that is. Under the tree, it's a cardinal virtue.