Rude Awakening

In this politically correct computer age, the mainstream soft-porn magazine seems to be losing its audience but some publishers are defending their corner with a mind-bogglingly inventive array of specialist products which, even if they are po

SBHD: In this politically correct computer age, the mainstream soft-porn magazine seems to be losing its audience but some publishers are defending their corner with a mind-bogglingly inventive array of specialist products which, even if they are poison to advertisers, seem to have secured their room at the top.

When the editor of soft porn magazine Penthouse suggested to Marks & Spencer that it pay for a four-page supplement featuring models wearing, or not wearing, the store’s underwear, the top high-street chain slammed the phone down on him. Twice.

Editor Deric Botham doesn’t understand M&S’s attitude; nor can he understand why camera companies won’t advertise in one of his more recent magazines, New Talent, which he claims has sold 200,000 copies a month since it was launched last year and which features first-time models and provides tips for prospective “glamour” photographers.

He blames the “young, politically correct” members of media-buying departments at advertising agencies, saying they prevent him from getting a fair hearing.

“The higher up you go in an agency the more likely you are to get a result,” he says.

Penthouse, published by “Britain’s leading independent publisher” Northern & Shell, which publishes or distributes 15 other porn titles, is struggling to boost its circulation and so retain its franchise in the face of pressure from its US founder Bob Guccione (MW January 13). He announced plans last October to bring a rival US version of the magazine to the UK.

Penthouse is certainly the only title among the most recent issues of the leading soft-porn, or “adult” or “top shelf”, titles to carry any advertising for mainstream consumer brands, in this case Philips and Sega. Both companies were quick to say the ads were an unusual step for them, though neither ruled out advertising in similar publications again.

“It depends on your definition of pornography. We would not be seen in any magazines that went any further than Playboy-style magazines,” says a Philips spokesman. “This is effectively a one-off, as our schedule over the past two or three years shows.”

Sega marketing director Noel Dardis was also quick to say that the ad “was not something we do regularly”; but young males, the most likely buyers of Sega’s products, also make up a high proportion of these kinds of magazines’ readership.

However, Nintendo has no plans to follow suit. Mark Lunn, Nintendo account director at J Walter Thompson, says: “Sega has quite a different strategy from us. They overtly target younger people with an `attitude’. Nintendo involves family game players.”

It was a different story a few years ago. Then, UK porn titles carried ads for cigarettes, alcohol, cars, after-shave and hi-fi equipment. The most famous porn magazine of them all, Playboy, still carries plenty of display ads, though the emphasis is on cigarettes and alcohol brands such as Marlboro, Remy Martin and Smirnoff, with the odd appearance by brands such as Bulova watches. But the UK edition of Playboy died long ago and only the US version is sold in this country.

Perhaps because porn is increasingly available through other media – CD-ROM and video – some commentators, including wholesaler WH Smith, believe the market for “mainstream” soft-porn titles is in overall decline. Certainly the rest of the market has fragmented into hundreds of niche titles with some estimates of total sales of porn magazines in the UK reaching 20 million a year, worth ú52m.

Two of the latest titles to reach the shelves are Ravers and Two Blue, both produced by one of the leading publishers in the field, Galaxy Publications.

Editor of both the new magazines is David Spenser, who says his new titles are aimed at the “lower” end of the market.

“It’s always been apparent that the ruder a magazine is, the better its sales are. We’ve experienced a downturn since the mid-Seventies but sales have been steady for the past couple of years,” he says. “The magazines are luxury items to some extent and if someone is feeling a bit low then they go out and buy magazines like ours.”

Certainly, sales of those porn magazines which were or are members of the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed their best performance during the late Eighties.

Mayfair, one of seven porn titles published by Paul Raymond Publications, which is no longer a member of the ABC and no longer willing to reveal its circulation, saw sales touch almost 332,000 a month in 1989. Fiesta, a Galaxy Publications title still audited by the ABC, had sales peak at 328,000 a month in 1987; the figure for Fiesta last year was 240,000 copies a month. The readership is considerably higher since porn titles are often passed from reader to reader.

WH Smith, the country’s biggest newsagent, sells about half-a-dozen soft-porn titles through its main retail outlets. But it distributes a further 25 titles, out of the 150 or so generally available, through its wholesale operation supplying 22,000 independent newsagents up and down the country. In a publishing sector notoriously lacking in accurate information, it is well placed to comment on how porn titles are performing and it says demand is falling.

Only 100 branches out of 500 sell the magazines after WH Smith’s decision last year to allow branch managers to choose for themselves whether or not to stock the company’s “approved’ soft-porn titles, basing their decision on local demand. This move was almost certainly influenced by the pressure group Campaign Against Pornography and its Off the Shelf action aimed at persuading retailers to stop stocking porn titles. Campaigners’ tactics include taking magazines off shelves and ripping them up, something last seen at WH Smith’s London Oxford Street Plaza branch in December.

“We also refused to stock Health & Efficiency, which we had stocked for 25 years, after it was relaunched last year as a girlie mag. Nor do we stock The Sport or Sunday Sport because we can’t put them on the rack with other newspapers,” says a WH Smith spokeswoman.

David Sullivan, the owner of both newspapers made his name out of Parade magazine and was also instrumental in introducing the concept of Readers’ Wives to an eager public. Last week, he got the go-ahead from the ITC to launch a soft core cable TV channel, Babylon Blue (see box).

WH Smith had initially refused to stock For Women, the women’s porn title, but eventually relented after criticism that it was being sexist. It has since dropped the title, citing lack of demand.

The company says media hype was responsible for the initial surge in sales of porn titles aimed at women, and claims the same phenomenon was behind the growth in sex education videos. Here, too, sales have plummeted though WH Smith still stocks six – on the basis that it sells books on the same theme, such as The Joy of Sex.

The company now also puts the title Gay Times on the top shelf, in line with a voluntary code adopted last year, since it contains contact numbers for sexual services.

But despite falling sales WH Smith has no plans to stop supplying these magazines and it will continue to supply other porn magazines through its wholesale division. “If there is a demand we will sell it. That’s a commercial decision,” says the spokeswoman.

Deric Botham, who was once marketing director for Curry’s electrical retail chain, says he can ensure that demand continues just so long as he keeps listening to his readers.

“Two years ago the market was in decline because this industry had not listened to its public. I read all the readers’ letters so I knew they wanted a magazine like New Talent or Real Wives and that sold out within eight days ,” he says.

He aims to start catering for the burgeoning market in homemade video porn next with a title called Amateur Video, to be launched in March. The first issue will carry a free, amateur porn video on the cover.

The UK porn publishing industry remains almost entirely in private ownership, with no institutional shareholders, to worry about, who could be subject to pressure from anti-porn campaign groups. Though the industry has virtually given up trying to attract mainstream consumer advertising and most “respectable” companies steer well clear, its success in adapting to market demand in recent years means its hold on shelf space, albeit the top one, remains campaign groups. Though the industry has virtually given up trying to attract mainstream consumer advertising and most “respectable” companies steer well clear, its success in adapting to market demand in recent years means its hold on shelf space, albeit the top one, remains secure.

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