With 2,055,391 readers across Britain, Tesco Magazine is the fourth largest circulating magazine in the country (three of Sky’s customer magazines remain ahead of it). At first the reader may feel obscurely uneasy as they peruse its pages. There is something distinctly unwholesome about Tesco Magazine, but you may struggle to put your finger upon exactly what. Only once a neuron has fired deep in your brain, with a faraway impression of frenzied cheering and triumphal music, can you place the hearty totalitarianism of Tesco Magazine. A Soviet Congress in the late 1930s; the invincible optimism of those who dream that they are finally basking in utopia.
There is not a squeak of negativity anywhere in the magazine; every article and interview conforms to repeating the same breezy platitudes about family and community. Perhaps Tesco should hold their own party conferences. When the hundredth delegate stands up to announce that, “at times like Christmas, we should remember the importance of our families,” the other delegates will rise to deliver the hundredth standing ovation.
Tesco Magazine’s remit potentially includes all human life. You are supposed to buy all of your food in Tesco, as well as your clothes, cleaning utilities, books and films. It is scarcely worth bothering with the traditional format and layout of a magazine, since the articles about Christmas decorations and skin care are often just as much adverts as the adverts themselves. But Tesco understands that there is more important work at hand than merely administering to these household practicalities.
Across the West, society is now imperilled and the family is in decline. 7.6 million people currently live by themselves. Last year there were 119,610 divorces across the country, whilst around 50% of young couples with children are opting not to get hitched in the first place. Yet Tesco will not capitulate just because all of its customers have given up on the family. Tesco’s flagging shoppers are fortified with the good news that the family is here to stay.
We know that the girl on the cover must be a mother, because she is beautiful. In Tesco Magazine, all mothers are stunningly attractive. Every woman to appear in the magazine reassures us of her family credentials. Helen Johnston, the Tesco Magazine editrix, introduces herself with the message that, “It’s been an amazing first week back in the saddle after a year’s maternity leave with my baby daughter.” The token “bloke” contributor is introduced as a “husband and dad.” The issue’s “star email” is entitled “Three cheers for dads,” and it testifies how Tesco Magazine “got me thinking about my own dad and what he taught me.”
The latest issue is devoted to Christmas, but Christmas is understood across the board as being exclusively a celebration of the family. Christmas is ultimately a means of loving and nurturing small children. For the contributor Sarah Morgan, “two sets of parental divorces and remarriages” amount to “four Christmases.” Katherine Jenkins would “love to take all my family away on an amazing holiday to the Maldives, or Thailand or somewhere on a boat. Christmas for me is all about spending time with family.” We find Sunetra Atkinson wanting to buy socks for “everyone in the family.” Mel C of Spice acclaim pays tribute to “mums everywhere.” In the “real life” section – presumably so entitled to distinguish it from whatever came before – Eva Perkins “can’t wait for my first family Christmas,” whilst Barbara Clark’s “family is back together after 45 years.” On the last page, Fiona Phillips confirms that “being with mum and dad is the best thing about Christmas.”
It is rather like those self-service machines which you find in Tesco, with an emotionless female voice mechanically repeating the same standardised message.
All of the stunning mothers who feature in Tesco Magazine will be killed by breast cancer. This is the designated foe of all righteous citizens in Tesco land, rather like Dick Dastardly in Wacky Races. But they will fight their cancer with patience and fortitude, and meet it with a good heart.
One might deem it a decidedly unwise idea to stuff family values down the throats of Tesco’s shoppers. A good quarter of Tesco’s customers will have been sexually abused by their families, or else cruelly neglected by them in some way (the NSPCC have recently reported that 1 in 4 children experience “severe maltreatment”). Half a million elderly people will spend Christmas alone. And for those lucky enough to celebrate Christmas with their families, the festive season is a prime time for family breakup.
Tesco is aware of the dark skies which are gathering beyond Camelot. A lesser supermarket would suffice to dole out those 40p coupons off a tub of spreadable garlic cheese. But Tesco sends its shoppers out into the world to paternalistically commit “good deeds,” such as giving cans to food banks, donating blood, or volunteering to spend Christmas with the elderly. Tesco will also help you to keep your family together over Christmas. Weary mothers are instructed to “schedule time out for yourself,” whilst Tesco’s counsellor is on hand to advise that you should “sort out any family tensions before Christmas actually begins.” Separated parents are warned to “stay flexible” and share their children nicely.
If we were not by now overwhelmed with help, Dr Rob Hicks is next up to recommend that families should avoid flu by “eating a balanced diet” and “getting plenty of exercise.” A trip to some “beautiful winter scenery” will top up “the mood-boosting hormone serotonin,” although one imagines that five minutes of reading Tesco Magazine will send your serotonin through the ceiling. Families should “stay moderate with the alcohol,” if they can actually manage to buy any in a Tesco store (they will refuse to sell you alcohol if you are accompanied by teenaged children). And to get the family’s bowels moving, Hicks counsels them to lie down on the floor and “gently rub circles” on their tummies.
Never mind that a medieval witch would provide more practical health advice. Tesco Magazine at first appears to be unexpectedly substantial. Not substantial enough to keep a train passenger entertained from Edinburgh to Glasgow, but if they found that they had mistakenly slipped Tesco Magazine into their briefcase instead of The Economist, it would get them as far as Livingstone. Aside from an editorial and a letters-to-the-editor feature, Tesco Magazine lacks the conventional features of a magazine – the crossword, strip cartoon, horoscope etc – and once you have put down an issue, you will struggle to remember what you had read.
Yet perhaps the trick is its thinness of content – you end up searching the magazine for something to read. Moreover, the human mind is naturally intolerant of the predictable, and so readers find themselves subliminally scouring the magazine for anything usual or unexpected. As they begin to progress methodically through the magazine, the extremes of blandness which await on every page will only exasperate them onwards. In this way, the impression of a substantial magazine is woven out of scarcity.
Like possibly millions of people, I am in the same shoes as the correspondent who begins, “As a young man, I’m not one to pick up free magazines… But I did pick it up and thought I’d have a “quick flick through” – and guess what? I was hooked!.. what more can a man ask for?” Although any “young man” should aspire to get more from life than Tesco Magazine, one in the very least sympathises with his plight. Tesco Magazine is probably engineered by a committee of PR experts, who are manipulating us in all sorts of subtle and terrifying ways. But they are not just ruthless capitalists who are intent upon mining us for every penny. They have assumed responsibility for the survival of our families. Across the nation, minds are now turning to Christmas presents and travel plans.
[Tychy previously wrote satirically about Tesco here. Ed.]