Lad mags are growing up. Of course they are

Why are Britain's 'lads' mag' editors falling over each other to gain the high moral ground? Or is that a Loaded question?

New Year has proved to be a strange time for Britain's men's magazine editors. They seem to be having, well, a bit of an identity crisis. With at least three new men's magazines expected to launch into an already crowded market in coming months, established players are falling over themselves to insist there's more to their products than boobs'n'bums.

New Year has proved to be a strange time for Britain's men's magazine editors. They seem to be having, well, a bit of an identity crisis. With at least three new men's magazines expected to launch into an already crowded market in coming months, established players are falling over themselves to insist there's more to their products than boobs'n'bums.

First came news of Loaded's decision just before Christmas to end its babe-only cover policy. Then the current issue, which contains an 18-page investigation on - no, not female masturbation or genital warts, but "The Meaning of Life".

Next Esquire announced it too is to ditch the now seemingly obligatory barely-clad B-list cover babe and introduce a range of editorial changes to more clearly differentiate itself. And while GQ insiders affect surprise at Esquire's move, claiming their ( GQ's) own current position in the market gives them little reason to change, there is talk of "a problem in perception" in the men's magazine market.

At FHM, meanwhile, there is open acknowledgement of difficult market conditions - although the title remains the clear leader by monthly sales - and claims that each player will have to "assert its individuality" more and more. "Over the next year people who think they can only fill their magazine with topless pictures will find themselves in real trouble," FHM editor Anthony Noguera observes.

All of which seems a bit strange coming from a publishing sector renowned in recent years for increasingly salacious editorial content and booming sales. For, despite premature reports of its decline (thanks to recent sales figures which indicated that the rapid growth of Loaded and FHM was starting to slow), the men's magazine market is fit and well. So why the apparent change of heart? According to Esquire editor, Peter Howarth, it's an indication of the maturing of the market. Even Loaded editor, Tim Southwell, has said "he would rather put Kate Adie on the cover than Melanie Sykes, though that would be circulation suicide".

Loaded and FHM hit the ground running and continue to dominate the market, says Howarth. But the "lads mag" tag that was attached to them was soon extended to include all men's lifestyle magazines. This was in part due to GQ and Esquire adopting many of the upstarts' more brash tactics. But the result has been a blurring of the line between the upmarket and laddish sectors.

"We were selling ourselves under false pretences," Howarth now believes. "Where else would you have a product that looks like one thing but claims to be another? An Aston Martin that looks like a Ford Capri?" So, with sales now steady, the time seemed right to take the Esquire mix back to its more literary roots. Aside from the return of male cover stars, from this month there will be higher-profile interview, investigative slots, new features including a regular photo-journalism spread, guest columnists and new fiction.

What's also interesting, however, is that the original "lads' mag" - Loaded - is also now attempting to refine its image. "There's no particular conscious change in the way we are pitching our ideas (to the reader) - we have just the same level of creativity we always had.

"The thing is we need to get more people to see Loaded for what it is," deputy editor John Perry explains. Why? "Because perceptions of us as a magazine have become skewed," he says. "We want to make a high-profile statement that we do think about things more deeply than a lot of people give us credit for."

The perception of Loaded is still that it has flown by the seat of its pants, Perry adds. "In fact, we've been more considered in our approach for quite some time. There's quality writing and strong ideas. We are a writer's magazine." The less charitable, however, might suggest that attempts by the editors of men's magazine to project their "true" image better have more to do with the fact that FHM continues to outsell its closest rival by almost two to one. " GQ and Esquire's attempts to claim the higher ground are absolute rubbish," FHM's Noguera observes. " Esquire runs people on the cover that we would never touch. And have you seen the latest edition of GQ? I've never seen so many bare boobs and girls posing with their legs apart, or hands in their knickers. It uses pictures which in any other magazine would be pornographic."

At which point, pots and kettles come to mind. For while it too eschews the tag, FHM's editorial contains as many sexy babes, beerful humour and dubious taste as the next lads' mag. But Noguera's point is that all of the men's magazines are more similar than their respective editors would care to admit. Although, of course, he is confident about his own title's unique selling point. "Useful, funny and sexy is our bedrock," he explains. "We do serious as well."

Unsurprisingly, GQ editor, Dylan Jones, sees things a little differently. "I'm fiercely proud of what we are doing and believe our place in the marketplace is secure as the best-selling, 'broadsheet men's magazine'," he declares - in spite of the current issue of GQ which proudly displays Patsy Kensit's nipple on its cover. "We don't have to fight for the upper ground," Jones continues: "We already have it."

A slight downturn in the sales of some of its competitors might show growth is slowing, he adds. "But we anticipate further rises in our next ABC [sales] figures out next month. It's all to do with brand and personality. If it is confident, a magazine does not need to worry about the impression it is given." Snipes aside, the men's magazine market is undoubtedly entering a new phase. Although clearly differentiated by the size of their circulations, rapid growth has, to a certain extent, resulted in a blurring of identities - typified by the fact that all have ended up putting the same semi-clad, B-list female celebrities on their cover.

The irony, of course, is that in this particular market, women on the cover do boost sales. Unlike in the US, where most magazines enjoy more than two thirds of their sales by subscription, the UK figure is closer to just five per cent. It is therefore a function of a news-stand driven marketplace that the cover sells the magazine. So those choosing to champion the male cover star are, undoubtedly, taking a risk. But, they claim, they are also trying to be something else: different.

So what sort of a start have they got off to? Well, in the case of Esquire (which declares itself to be challenging the "sex sells mentality" in publicity for its February edition out this week) a subtle shift is evident. For starters, Johnny Depp is the cover star. Inside, new features including the "Men from Esquire's" account of a trip to find the West Pole and "The Player" - in which the writer joins the squad of Everton Football Club - make for a lively mix. Sexy women are ever present, but lower key - although a feature which asks "Why are French women so sexy?" provides an opportunity to up the babe count.

Change in this month's Loaded ("For men who will know better" its masthead declares) is less evident. Cover "sultress" Charlie O'Neale has a shock for readers: "I want to be a social worker, or a child psychologist", she nakedly confides. "The Meaning of Life" report is a lively read... but then it's back to B-list babes ("We like a pub crawl - a pint in every one") and the usual mix of TV nostalgia, footie, boxing and gadgets. The mix, however, is unarguably more restrained than Loaded in its early days.

GQ's crowded visual style, meanwhile, can blur its claim to be the "big... clever (and) grown-up" read. The current issue does include an interesting piece on Rupert Murdoch's youngest son, James, and another on online betting. But while the writing's tight, the look is blowzy - with Kensit in trash mode, a lingerie "special" featuring pouting models and Pretty Polly mode,l Andrea Nemcova, shaving her pubic hair.

At least FHM makes little claim to be anything other than a loud, brash read. Pictures of a dead body used by Parisian medical students and an item on lesbian sex (title: "Lezzers - then and now") are staple fare. As is the promise of no more than 250 words of continuous copy without the relief of a cartoon, sexy pic or humorous comment in a box. More B-list female celebrities and a heavy dose of cultural nostalgia are the subject of other coverage.

Expect further attempts by current players in the men's magazine market to more clearly state their differences and sharpen their branding in months to come, then, as at least three new men's magazine titles enter the fray. But don't hold your breath for much change in the approach to using pictures of women within the editorial pages. "We're still interested in pretty girls," Loaded's Perry stresses. "And we won't apologise for that."

LOADED Editor: Tim Southwell Circulation: 384,351 'I would rather put Kate Adie on the cover than Melanie Sykes. But that would be circulation suicide'

GQ Editor: Dylan Jones Circulation: 145,144 'We don't have to fight for the upper ground. We already have it'

ESQUIRE Editor: Peter Howarth Circulation: 100,380 'We were selling ourselves under false pretences'

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