Monday, June 21, 2010

Shelf life for lads' mags...

‘Lads, gags and shags’ mags might be falling in sales but, SUSAN DALY asks, have readers’ tastes really changed – or are they just gone elsewhere?

WHAT men want is what marketers the world over want to know. Nearly 300 years ago, the first men’s magazine appeared to have it all figured out.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was launched in 1731 to great success. It titillated subscribers with a heady mix of social gossip and gruesome details of recent executions. It printed tips from readers on how to keep all one’s own teeth and hair into advanced age (which, granted, was probably no more than 55 in the 18th century).

Gawping at celebs, body-consciousness and a fascination with gore – it doesn’t sound a million miles removed from the lad-mag culture of today.
Nonetheless an American media mogul is claiming that the lads’ mag as we know it is dead. Michael Rideout (what fun mags like Nuts or Zoo would have with that name) is launching a new publication and website targeting men in the 25-34 age bracket. He has given the brand the aspirational name of MadePossible and describes it as the “anti-Maxim”, referring to one of the former market leaders in the ‘girls, gadgets and grog’ magazine sector.

“At around 25, guys start making grown-up choices for the first time that will largely shape their future,” he says. Young men want substance, not sex in their bathroom reading material, he argues.

If Rideout is right, then the end must be nigh for a huge publishing phenomenon: the lads’ mag. Top-shelf men’s material has been around since the advent of lurid Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ – cheap pulp fiction aimed at young men – right through the creation of Playboy and its more hardcore successors Penthouse and Hustler. But what the 1990s brought was a boom in men’s magazines that were considered acceptable to display at eye-level, just about.

In 1994, Loaded fired the first volley in a revolution of mainstream men’s mags. Esquire and GQ existed at the time as glossy men’s ‘lifestyle’ publications but were concerned with literary essays and advising readers on the importance of wearing an expensive watch.

By contrast, Loaded announced that it would be the magazine “for men who should know better”. Its 20-something creator James Brown said they spoke to “the millions of real blokes who love football and want to pull women… I’m very proud to say we’ve lowered the tone.”

Quick to lower it further – and noticing the 250,000 copies sold by Loaded in a matter of 18 months – titles like FHM and Maxim appeared on the scene. FHM in particular captured the …er… imagination of hormonal young readers with its High-Street Honeys competition, which celebrated “real-life hotties” by inviting them to pose for the mag in bikinis. Female C-list celebs began to see the obligatory photoshoot for a lads’ mag as a viable career move (see panel).

James Brown has claimed that he wasn’t trying to do anything that hadn’t already been deemed a success in women’s magazines. To persuade his publishers that Loaded wouldn’t be taken off the shelves for being too lewd, he showed them headlines and articles about sex taken from women’s magazines. “At the centre I placed an article giving details on ‘How To Give A Blow Job’ from Cosmo,” he said.

The men’s magazine sector had never seen anything like the bump in circulation figures in the following five years. FHM, which took over as market leader, sold almost a million copies a month between the UK and Ireland by 1998. It fit with the laddish culture of Men Behaving Badly on TV and Oasis in the charts, supposedly obsessed with beer, birds and tongue-in-cheek humour. If you didn’t see the fig leaf of irony – as some commentators and sociologists didn’t – the implication was that you weren’t getting it.

Here, where Playboy was only available in a brown envelope from cousin Mikey in America until 1993, the new additions to the newsagents looked startling next to copies of Ireland’s Own and the RTE Guide.

The sales figures stayed high until the early Noughties – or Naughties, as the mags would probably have called them – but were massively hit by the downward evolution of even less sexually subtle weekly titles like Zoo and Nuts.

With their competitions to “win your girlfriend a boob job”, gross-out pics of freak accidents and what the industry would call a high nipple count, there is no pretence that they are being read for their articles. There have been calls to have the mags bagged, tagged and reassigned to the top shelf. A recent ‘publishing error’ in Zoo magazine caused huge controversy when actor Danny Dyer’s celebrity column advised a broken-hearted reader to cut his ex-girlfriend’s face.

They are under siege on the sales front too have seen a drastic fall in circulation. Zoo and Nuts were down over 20 per cent off their year-on-year sales in the last half of 2009.

Does this mean that the boys have finally grown up? It would be a pretty abrupt end to the history of soft porn and erotica. Cave art from over 12,000 years ago found in Creswell Crag, England only a few years ago includes huge paintings of female genitalia. When Victorian archaeologists cracked open the ruins of Pompeii, they were so mortified by the many artefacts inscribed with graphic depictions of sex acts that felt the need to hide them away in a secret museum in Naples for over 150 years.

A cursory glance at the reading habits of the Irish male might conclude that they are a refined bunch compared to the inhabitants of ancient Rome. Homegrown magazines dedicated to the Irish male have never managed to take off here, for example.

But on closer look, the titles that tried their hand and ultimately failed, Patrick and Himself, were pretty tame. The first media brand to target the Irish male in quite some time is the new website It appears again to be a relatively restrained mix of sports, style, entertainment news, motors and money. (Although it does feature a section titled ‘Joe’s Lovely Ladies’, currently illustrated by a pic of everyone’s favourite FAS model Georgia Salpa.)

It is interesting to note, however, that the section of with most hits in the first few months of the site’s existence is not the GAA column by Cork icon Sean Og O hAilpin nor the healthy eating column by chef Kevin Dundon. It is the sex and relationship agony aunt column by glamour model Claire Tully. Topics to tickle Tully’s fancy include bikinis (to wear or not to wear), cross-dressing and the rather less inconsequential matter of false rape allegations.

Sexual obsession might be moved out of the eyeline of the impressionable from time to time like those kinky Pompeiian artefacts but in those cases it just goes underground for a while. More likely, lad-culture magazine buyers have simply gone online. When Australian lads’ mag Ralph announced the current issue will be its last ever, due to poor sales, its publisher Phil Scott said it was because the tastes of young male readers had changed. “The growth of online is a factor but if history is any guide, it is not the key issue,” he claimed.

Yet most lads’ mags seem to recognise the siren call of the online portal into ever more raunchy content – they have all launched their own websites with ‘extra value’ material. (The Nuts website is currently home to 100 Real Girls in Bed, videos of crazy car stunts and a competition called Assess My Breasts).

On top of that, those with more extreme tastes know they can easily find other sites where the kind of material available is not subject to consumer watchdogs. It makes the breasts and booze of lads’ mags look almost quaint.

SOFT PORN – OR CAREER MOVE? Five lads’ mags favourite cover girls (Or in ladspeak: Top five birds)
GAIL PORTER: The children’s TV presenter said she had no idea FHM were going to project a naked image of her photoshoot with them on the London Houses of Parliament – but it gave the mag record-breaking sales in July 1999, and made Porter a household name.
ABI TITMUSS: The former nurse emerged from the shadow of being ex-girlfriend of disgraced telly personality John Leslie by posing for 38 covers of lads’ magazines in 2004 and 2005, and becoming a reality TV regular off the back of it. She has since become an actress but did a photoshoot for Nuts last year.
JENNIFER ELLISON: The baby-faced Brookside actress put what in lads’ mag parlance would be her blonde, busty looks to work as a regular pin-up. Her first such shoot was for FHM at the age of 16 under the headline ‘Jailbait’. She has since said that posing for lads’ mags has hurt her acting career in the UK, saying “UK casting agencies can be a bit sniffy” about glamour models.
CHANELLE HAYES: The female contestants on this year’s final series of Channel 4’s Big Brother who stripped off within hours of entering the house will no doubt be contemplating a lucrative, if possible short, stint doing the same for lads’ mags on their eviction.
It has been a tradition of BB that each cast has at least one camera-loving exhibitionist – and a tradition of the mags to feature them on the cover immediately after. Chanelle Hayes claim to fame in 2007’s Big Brother was a striking resemblance to Victoria Beckham. Since then, she has become one of the most regular BB contestants to pose for lads’ mags and co-presented Nuts TV in 2008.

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