SEX PLEASE, WE’RE BRITISH
Byline: Samantha Conti
LONDON — Are British glossy magazines sex-obsessed? Is the Queen’s name Elizabeth?
So-called beer and babes magazines in America pale in comparison to their U.K. counterparts. British GQ, Maxim and FHM regularly feature topless starlets and socialites, who gladly strip off for the, um, exposure. British FHM and its rival Loaded, meanwhile, have featured stomach-churning photographic layouts on skin diseases and even sexual diseases.
And it’s not just the glossies. The tabloid newspaper The Sun features a full-page topless beauty every day while the Daily Star — one of the country’s fastest-growing newspapers — is regularly packed with women in various states of undress. Even the trade publications are no prudes. Take, for example, this recent headline from the U.K. edition of Media Week on the state of the British men’s magazine market: “Men’s titles climax as sales go flaccid.”
The reasons behind the British magazines’ sex drive range from the cultural (Europeans are a lot less puritanical than their American cousins) to the practical (competition on the newsstands is brutal). “British magazines have always been more salacious, ribald and cutting-edge and sex has always been fundamental to men’s magazines here,” said Dylan Jones, the editor of British GQ. “The tradition in America has been far tamer.” Indeed, magazines in the U.S. can’t show a woman’s nipples or public hair — all of which is fair game in England (and we’re not talking about Penthouse and Playboy).
But while British men’s magazines remain firmly committed to taut bodies and tiny bikinis, many are retooling their content — and being forced to rethink their approach to sex — in the face of an increasingly difficult market.
Every month, Jones puts a pretty woman on the cover of the magazine. In November, it was Pamela Anderson wearing nothing but a satin bow over her breasts and torn fishnet knee-highs; in January it was Heidi Klum busting out of a jewel-studded bikini and in February it was Monica Bellucci looking sultry in a filmy silk tank. The current issue is particularly tame: Kirstin Dunst, dressed in a black strappy dress, flashes a little leg.
Inside, there’s a mix of bodacious babe photo shoots, fashion, celebrity stories and some rather weighty articles and columns including “Bill Clinton, the IRA and the terrorist cell that wouldn’t die” and “What Blair will really do with the Euro.”
For Jones, the use of sex is never gratuitous. It’s what sells magazines. “Women sell more. Just look at the sexy women on the covers of women’s magazines. When you’re competing on the newsstands — and don’t have the luxury of a huge subscriber base — you take that into consideration,” said Jones in a telephone interview.
Most British men’s magazines — like their counterparts on the Continent — don’t rely on subscriptions, but instead wage a monthly war at newspaper kiosks. Overall, the magazine market is small, drawing only 6.5 percent of the U.K. advertising dollars. The men’s market has more than two million total sales spread roughly among the top seven magazines.
David Davies, editor of the U.K. edition of FHM, is the poster boy for sex-and-flesh editorial strategy. Indeed it was his magazine, now the number-one seller in the U.K. men’s lifestyle category, that helped — along with Loaded — unleash the craze in the early Nineties for steamy ‘lads’ mags.”
“I imagine that we use more sex than the Americans because we can get away with it,” said Davies in telephone interview. “The Americans would do it too if they could.”
Art Cooper, the editor of American GQ, disagreed. “We do put sexy women on our covers about three times a year, but I can’t sit here and tell you that if I could put a woman on the cover every month, I actually would,” he said. “Some sell wonderfully, and some don’t. Why that is, is a mystery to me.”
As for the Brits’ racier content — this month FHM carries cartoons of one woman with her hand venturing down the front of her underwear, a variety of nipples and naked bottoms, and a cartoon strip that counsels readers not to masturbate into a hot apple pie — Cooper said it could just be a question of culture. “American readers are likely having real sex with real women. I think the British magazines may be the result of a buttoned-up culture and all the sexual content may be a substitute for the real thing,” Cooper said.
It remains to be seen where the market’s next launch — “Jack” — will fall in the men’s lifestyle chain. Jack will be edited by James Brown, founder of “Loaded,” who left to briefly become editor of British GQ. “Jack” will be published by Brown’s I Feel Good Holdings Plc, which also publishes the film title “Hotdog.” It hits the U.K. newsstands on April 25 and will appear as a monthly title from the November issue onward.
Jones and Davies argue that it’s not just them — that women’s magazines are just as — or even more sex obsessed — than they are. “We’re tamer than a lot of women’s magazines,” said Davies. Indeed, the February issue of U.K. Cosmopolitan has Britney Spears on the cover and offers “Peekaboo sex diaries: Day-by-day accounts of daring couples’ love lives” while the magazine’s 30th-anniversary March issue boasts a special supplement with sexual “real-life” stories that read like soft porn.
British readers rarely find the magazines’ content offensive. Both the Press Complaints Commission, which defends public individuals in libel and privacy cases, and the Advertising Standards Authority, which ensures that advertising does not “cause serious or widespread offense,” said they rarely receive any complaints about the sex content of glossy magazines.
But the men’s magazines are having to take a hard look at their content and readership. The general consensus in the industry is that the men’s market has reached its peak and can no longer sustain the high circulation figures it built up over the 1990s during the boom of the sexed-up “lads’ mags.”
“The market is past its peak right now, and it’s not going to spring back to what it was. In the future what we’re going to see are fewer titles and lower circulations,” said Steve De Saulles, the director of Ocean Consulting, a London-based media consulting group.
According to ABC, for the six-month period ended Dec. 31, 2001 versus a year ago, FHM saw its circulation fall 20.4 percent to 570,719; Maxim’s circulation tumbled 15.8 percent to 276,640; Men’s Health fell 8.6 percent to 215,517, and GQ’s dropped 10.2 percent to 125,885.
“The sector’s success was based on the sex and raciness led by magazines like Loaded and FHM. But the sex and salaciousness isn’t novel anymore and the magazines can’t sustain the kind of circulation they had in the past. In addition, newspapers like the Daily Star are featuring lots of scantily clad women every day — and they cost only 38 cents. The sexiness won’t go away, it’ll just cool down,” said De Saulles.
Simon Geller, the editor of Men’s Health — which always has a male model on the cover — said the men’s magazines have to distinguish themselves from one another if they want to survive. “A lot of the reason these magazines are in trouble is that there is a narrow pull of women who are willing to strip down and pose for pictures. Over the years, they’ve been going for the same models, and the same readers and they’ve begun massively cannibalizing themselves.”
The men’s titles are rejigging to help stem the circulation slides. Earlier this year, British GQ retooled its content, adding 20 extra editorial pages and 10 more fashion pages per issue, a political column by the controversial former British Cabinet member Peter Mandelson, a column by singer Robbie Williams and a string of new reporters well known in the U.K. Maxim editor Tom Loxley recently said his magazine would “go back to its roots as the mass-market men’s magazine you should reach for when approaching 30” and cut down on its cover promotions.
FHM is freshening up its look, changing formats and layouts, positioning itself closer to its mid-20s market. But editor Davies promises that beautiful women will always be a part of the mix. “The market may be changing but I don’t think men are any less interested in beautiful women.”