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Smile and the Whole World Smiles with You

In 1982 I read in the Wall Street Journal a quote from an editor of a Soviet business magazine: “Our readers must be made to understand that life is a complicated thing of negatives and positives.”

         At the time I was working as a fact-checker for a financial-advice magazine which was owned by a major American media conglomerate. The magazine’s business plan was to give advertisers access to American professionals by trumpeting in issue after issue that every American professional could become financially secure and thus — by definition — happy. And all this simply by following the advice on investing and consuming contained in the magazine. The United States being what it is, the champion of this plan, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, was an immigrant’s son made good who believed this assertion. He also clearly understood that there was little money to be made encouraging people to think that either money or happiness is not so simply obtained. And the editor might have argued that, in any case, he could hardly see the point of wasting people’s time telling them things that — no matter how true or interesting they might be — were not going to make them richer or happier.

         First and foremost, the editor insisted that every month the cover of the magazine be dominated by a color photograph of an attractive professional or attractive married professionals who had invested their money successfully and who — therefore, it might be presumed — were smiling and looking optimistic. (One might say that this was an American version of the Soviet propaganda pictures of strong, proud, Russian peredoviki — leading workers — or of the Nazi pictures of blond, athletic, upward-gazing “Aryan” youth.)

      Thus one month the cover was to feature a West Coast professional couple who were successfully building their retirement “nest egg”. But the photographer who flew out from New York to take the picture called back to say that the people were physically unattractive. He was instructed to buy them new clothes and haircuts, use all his professional skill. After taking one look at the resulting slides, however, the editor-in-chief announced that, while he had nothing against these people’s upbeat story appearing in the magazine, their faces were not going to appear on one of his covers. The magazine’s correspondents around the country were queried — were any of the other successful savers and investors they had dug up for the upcoming issue physically attractive? It fell to one of my fellow “reporters” to call the rejects on the West Coast and give them a diplomatic — i.e., deceitful — explanation of why the picture of them in their financially successful and happy new clothes and hairdos would not be appearing on the cover.