NEW YORK — “Are we not men?” chant the confused half-man, half-beast creatures in the H.G. Wells classic “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”
In today’s testosterone-drenched world of men’s magazines, the answer to that question is tantalizingly unclear. The men’s magazine category is mutating, and the time-honored hierarchy of value — with GQ on top and t&a magazines on the bottom — has been convulsed by the phenomenal success of Dennis Publishing titles Maxim and Stuff. Rather than attempt to break Maxim’s lock on `beer and babes’ readers, titles like GQ, Esquire, Details, and Gear are exploring their feminine sides, literally and figuratively: 42 percent of Esquire’s readers in 2001, and 37 percent of GQ’s, were women. Details, meanwhile, has defied the traditional strictures of men’s mags like Maxim and Gear by addressing what it sees as the total male audience, gay and straight. Even the ultra-hetero Gear has recently adopted the rather `femmy’ strategy of hiring Michel Comte as creative director to beef up its fashion coverage.
Yet all of these magazines need to retain their hetero male reader base, so a tussle over how `manly’ to be takes places from issue to issue. Place your fingers over the logo of the current issue of Gear — with Christian Slater on the cover — and you might think it’s Gear’s arch-rival Details. Now try the same trick with Esquire’s June issue, where actress Kirsten Dunst sports a near see-through t-shirt more appropriate to Maxim. The only men’s titles retaining unisex covers are Details, which runs only men, and Maxim/Stuff/FHM, which run only women.
“Two years ago, editors at upscale men’s titles like GQ were tempted to emulate Dennis Publishing and chase cheap circulation with covers of scantily-clad women,” said Walter Coyle, senior vice president and media director of ad agency Pedone & Partners. “That didn’t really work out. Now they’re more inclined to chart their own course and differentiate themselves from Maxim rather than imitate it.”
But that doesn’t stop other magazines from gauging their fortunes in relation to Maxim and Stuff. The primacy of Dennis Publishing is most strongly affirmed by Esquire editor in chief David Granger, who credits Maxim with bringing quasi-illiterate male couch potatoes back to the newsstand. “The fact is that Maxim has created magazine readers, which is an astonishing achievement,” said Granger. “It’s a service to the whole industry. We’re hoping that people will learn magazine reading through Maxim, stay with it for a couple of years, then develop more sophisticated tastes.”
That’s where Esquire comes in, according to Granger’s calculus. “I don’t see any contradiction between getting into Maxim and reading Esquire. Men respond to both things. I mean, there’s a part of me that’s 14, that loves shiny things and seeing women naked, but that’s not all of me.”
There is some basis to Granger’s argument that Maxim and Stuff “created” a male reading audience from scratch. Maxim launched in April 1997 with a circulation of 175,000, a number which has since grown to 2.5 million. Its spin-off title, Stuff, launched in November-December 1998 with a circulation of 250,000; now it’s 1.1 million. This phenomenal growth has not, however, affected the circulation of Maxim’s putative competitors. GQ’s circulation has increased over the past two years (now it’s at 758,969), while Esquire’s circ is at the same level (666,000) as it was in 1997. Gear’s circ has climbed to 517,000 since its launch in 1998, while Details has held its ground at 408,000. Meanwhile, according to Media Industry Newsletter, GQ is down 10 percent in ad pages through July versus a year ago, while Esquire is down 17 percent; Details and Maxim are maintaining pace with last year (down 1.3 and .99 percent, respectively), while Stuff has increased its ad pages by 23 percent. According to Media Week Monitor, Gear’s YTD ad pages (through June) have increased 25 percent over last year.
Yet whether or not Maxim is a direct threat, other editors tend to view it in negative terms — less as an adversary than as a disturbing cultural phenomenon. In response to Granger’s assessment that Maxim `bathed the unwashed’ by creating magazine readers, GQ vice president and publisher Ron Galotti quipped: “You call that reading?”
“I’ve been putting women on the cover of GQ for 13 years, and no one paid attention to it until Maxim came along, and now I’m suddenly `copying’ Maxim,” said GQ editor in chief Art Cooper. “But that’s what happens when you’re market leader: people either attack you, or they imitate you, like Details is imitating us.” Cooper then went on to describe the kind of tortured masculinity he associates with the Maxim/Stuff reader. “Our surveys indicate that Maxim is the magazine for the outsider, someone who’s not completely comfortable with women. They don’t hate women; they’d just rather be at a garage talking about customizing cars. When I think of the Maxim demographic, I think of a guy with 10 t-shirts, 10 jeans, and one suit with a shirt and tie that don’t match. They’re no threat to civilization, and they’re no threat to GQ. This September, GQ will be celebrating its 45th anniversary; I doubt Maxim ever will be.”
GQ vice president and publisher Ron Galotti had a more strident assessment: “I think that Maxim has banged the feminist movement back to the dark ages. It’s teaching young men to be overly aggressive to women.”
Keith Blanchard, Maxim’s editor in chief, takes such comments in stride. “It’s a business ploy: what would you do if a competitor came and totally ate your lunch?” he said. “Or if you were a 50-year-old magazine swamped, in four years, not only by Maxim but by Maxim’s spin-off title Stuff?” Blanchard dismissed criticism that Maxim is a sexist magazine geared to frightened little boy-men as “the arguments of someone who doesn’t understand man’s basic desires. We’re not undressing any women who aren’t undressing themselves. I think we’re much more on the pulse of American male sexuality today than any other men’s magazine.”
That’s an assertion Playboy may have a better case making: with a 3.15 million circulation, it still beats out Maxim in sheer numbers. “When people say we’ve fallen from what we were, I always laugh and say: yeah, we’ve fallen to number one,” said Playboy Enterprises president of publishing Michael Carr.
Whether Maxim and GQ’s brawling will eventuate in actual competition for ad revenue is another story. “The hardest nut to crack for Dennis will be fashion advertising, because Maxim readers don’t really have a high fashion sensibility and advertisers know that,” said Coyle of Pedone & Partners. “The introduction [last year] of Maxim Fashion is a potential threat to titles like GQ, but only if it’s a superior editorial product to the regular Maxim, something along the lines of Gear, for instance.”
Bob Guccione, Jr., Gear’s effervescent editor in chief, claims to occupy the broad middle ground among men’s mags. “I sneak a nipple in every issue,” he gushed impishly while looking through some galleys. “I’m not supposed to, but they’ve stopped trying to catch me.” Given Guccione’s DNA, it’s not surprising that he’s the most outspoken critic of the masculinity purveyed by Maxim, on one end, and Details/GQ/Esquire on the other. In terms of Maxim, Guccione feels the relentlessly ironic tone of the book erodes any erotic appeal it may have. “Maxim is a comedy magazine. In a Maxim `article’ the head is a punchline, the deck is a punchline, and then you have the punchline.” On the other end, Guccione finds Details magazine — which he considers to be his primary rival — well, kind of gay. “I think it’s gun-shy about being sexy,” he mused. “Details is what I call mono-sexy, as opposed to stereo-sexy: it’s sexy only in a homoerotic way. We at Gear profile men you’d want to have a beer with. Joaquin Phoenix [Details April 2001 cover] could be twirling on his head and I wouldn’t notice him.”
Despite the criticism, Guccione seems to be aping his across-the-tracks competitor by featuring a man on its current cover (for only the second time in its history) and hiring Comte as creative director. Details editor in chief Dan Peres finds the moves amusing. “To say, in 2002, that you always need to have a woman on the cover of a men’s magazine is an antiquated view of masculinity, of almost Neanderthal proportions,” said Peres, who is committed to running men on the cover as a way of anchoring Details’ brand identity. “I would assume that if Gear plans to step up its fashion coverage, that means their readers are interested in fashion. Although,” he added facetiously, “I hope that doesn’t make the Gear reader gay, because that would be frightening to Gear.”
Peres has no qualms about catering to at least a latently gay audience, as one can divine from such recent Details cover lines as “How to Tell Your Girlfriend You’re Gay” and “Dating the Perfect Woman [So What if She Used to Be a Man?]”
“I have a responsibility to my readers who are gay, the magazine should appeal to men writ large — gay or straight,” he said.
Art Cooper has also reconciled himself to the mutating dynamics of men’s mags at the high end and the fact that, this year, almost a quarter of GQ’s readers are women. “I once made the mistake of saying to a group of women `you read GQ because the men are hot,”‘ said Cooper. “And their response was, no, we read it because we like the articles.’ Good journalism has no gender.””