Men’s magazine growth is due to a subtle recipe of bad taste

Publishers are stretching the booming men’s magazine sector. But a successful launch requires more than just ‘new laddism’. By Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC Television’s media correspondent

There’s no doubt that the publishing sensation of the past two years has been the discovery that men, who were once thought only to buy magazines featuring fast cars, football or naked women, can be persuaded to buy a new kind of magazine featuring all three.

Magazines like Esquire, Loaded, FHM and Maxim between them now sell almost 1 million copies a month at 2.50 apiece. This is still small beer compared with women’s magazines – Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan alone each sell approaching 500,000 – but no women’s magazine can boast the rate of growth of some of those in the men’s sector.

IPC’s Loaded, the market leader, saw circulation rise 87 per cent year on year to almost 240,000 in the January to June Audit Bureau of Circulations figures. EMAP’s FHM grew even more rapidly: its 182,000 circulation was double that of a year ago.

Arena’s circulation rose only 22 per cent to 94,000, and the relatively upmarket Esquire and GQ marked time, but the Loaded/ FHM-style growth is just too remarkable for publishers to ignore. They have duly started teeing-up the spin-offs, aimed at expanding the market still further, ready for launch.

We already have Men’s Health (ABC a respectable 132,000). Condé Nast’s GQ (ABC 131,000) is to spin off another health title, GQ Active, next April. Dennis, which publishes Maxim, is launching Escape (devoted to electronic entertainment) next month and Stuff (devoted to consumer products – the dummy cover features a Which-style survey of football boots) in November.

And this month we have Eat Soup, published by IPC (or, as the cover line has it, “from the makers of Loaded”), and devoted neither to fast cars, football nor naked women but to food.

But anyone who buys Eat Soup expecting an approach to restaurant reviews and recipes as robust and raucous as that of Loaded itself, risks disappointment. For one thing, it is not funny.

I confess that Loaded’s humour is rather lost on me – but then, I’m a fortysomething married man with kids and my days of flat-sharing, surfing, camel-racing and reading Marvel comics (all subjects of features in the current issue) are long past.

Nonetheless, it’s possible to acknowledge the skill with which Loaded is assembled and the accuracy with which it assaults its target market. There’s a profile of Radio 1’s Chris Evans, whose cavalier attitude to other people’s rules, coupled with enthusiasm for late nights, lager and “totty”, make him a Loaded hero.

There’s a feature on the nightlife of the Australian gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie (use your imagination), another profile of one-time Manchester City manager “Big Mal” Allison, an article on great movie car chases, seven pages of photographs of Premier League goalkeepers and a cover feature devoted to the Irish comic Ardal O’Hanlon, the baby-faced one in Channel 4’s Father Ted.

Laced as it is with plenty of pictures of women and copious references to getting drunk, the formula is guaranteed to offend the politically-correct and to appeal to those base male appetites which it was thought politic to play down until recently.

So IPC must feel a magazine devoted to another appetite, that for food, ought to play well with Loaded’s readership. The cover, which includes the line “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful”, hints at Loaded-style excess within.

It also carries a large picture of a young Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, the first film to make a sexy idea out of a man cooking, and inside there’s a long interview with the restaurateur and film star.

Tucked in among the recipes for Spanakopitta (filo pastry with spinach and cheese) and the Diner’s Directory of 700 UK eateries, there’s also a feature on cannibalism illustrated with a photograph of a naked woman, her body marked with dotted lines like a butcher’s chart.

There are five pages devoted to retracing, in a Porsche, James Bond’s gastronomic journeys through France (“I tried two Martinis on an empty stomach. In no time at all I was pissed as a newt… I decided the French were all arseholes and started driving on the left side of the road”).

It’s all faintly risible, and extraordinarily old-fashioned. I know the Sixties are supposed to be back in fashion, but is today’s 25 to 40 year-old man really expected to model himself on James Bond and Harry Palmer?

But, though risible, it takes itself too seriously to be funny. And I suspect FHM has more accurately assessed the attitude to food of the average men’s magazine buyer with its feature on what it calls “slob cuisine” – ready-made supermarket meals for eating on the sofa in front of the box: readers are promised “you won’t need to faff about with a garlic crusher to enjoy this lot”.

The success of the men’s magazine sector, not to speak of Chris Evans and Men Behaving Badly, Skinner and Baddiel and Nick Hornby, serve to confirm that new-laddism is definitely in. Publishers would be mad to ignore it. But finding the right recipe may not be straightforward.

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