Men are fickle readers. Over the years, surveys have shown that they aren't keen on novels and remain iffy about glossy magazines, despite the number of male-oriented titles cluttering the shelves at WH Smith. But when I started looking into male attitudes to the printed page for my book, Branded Male, I found that there was no such ambiguity when it came to newspapers. Men like the news – whether offline or on. In fact, they like it marginally better than women.
In the UK, according to the 2006 National Readership Survey, the readership of every "quality" daily newspaper skews male: 57 per cent of the readers of The Times and The Guardian are male. At The Independent the difference is even more marked, with a 61 per cent male readership. Only the mid-market tabloid Daily Mail, which has deliberately targeted women since the beginning (it was the first British newspaper to start a women's page), turns the trend on its head, delivering a 52 per cent female readership. In the US, the Newspaper Association of America says that 55 per cent of single-copy newspaper buyers are male. And The New York Times confirms that the weekday paper has a 52 per cent male readership.
The gender gap is even more dramatic online. A Nielsen/Netratings poll in 2004 revealed that 61.8 per cent of NYTimes.com readers were men. "In general, the number of men reading online news is 8 to 13 per cent higher than women," reported the technology magazine Wired in an article headed "News sites – where the men are". The geek bible added that newspapers need not feel bad about this revelation, "since they can demonstrate to advertisers that they have the elusive 18- to 34-year-old male – the most sought-after demographic in the media world – among their readers".
So what's causing the gender gap? It's probably fair to assume that most newsrooms remain male-dominated, and that the content of newspapers reflects this bias. In addition, many newspapers target women by trying to replicate the sort of features that appear in women's magazines – fashion, beauty, diet, relationships – but not doing it as well. They compound this error by packaging the material in expensive supplements, which may boost female readership over the weekend, but don't make up for the shortfall mid-week. In addition, although women consume news, they do so in a different way to men. They like news reports that cut to the chase, especially when it concerns financial matters. And they are generally turned off by sports coverage. Given the amount of sports reporting in newspapers, one might come to the conclusion that many publishers have abandoned the idea of targeting women altogether, in favour of trying to pull in more blokes.
And there's no denying that men love the sports pages. The cliché of the bloke who reads the paper from back to front is entirely accurate. A couple of years ago, the Newspaper Marketing Agency conducted research into the way men interact with the sports pages. The study confirmed: "Even among readers of the 'qualities', more than half of men either read the back page first or just scan the front page headlines before making a beeline for the sport."
Crucially, the men interviewed by the organisation stressed that sport was integral to their identity, "part of being male ... your father was into it too, something that was drummed into you as a kid". Men use the sports pages as social lubricant, gathering inside information that they will use around the water cooler, the coffee machine, or in the pub after work. In Britain, especially, the sports pages are entangled with male bonding rituals. If you're stuck for conversation at a party, most men will respond to a football reference. No matter what his attitudes or enthusiasms, sport is safe ground.
When it comes to choosing a newspaper, though, a consumer's decision naturally reflects their wider values, politics and social identities. That's why newspaper sports sections are ideal for targeting specific demographic groups, and therefore very attractive to advertisers.
So what kind of advertising works best in the sports pages? It requires a more delicate approach than you might think. Fans don't appreciate advertising that appears cynical or gratuitous. The advertiser needs to appreciate the intensity of emotion around sport – feelings of soaring triumph or bitter disappointment – and create images that reflect these moods.
Marketers would also be unwise to underestimate the marketing savvy of sports enthusiasts. Men confirm that they're more responsive to advertising from sponsors who "give something back" to sport – Gillette being a classic example.
If you're not a sponsor, establishing relevance is all-important. This doesn't mean that the brand has to be a sporting one: fans liked an ad featuring two rugby players facing off over a pint of Guinness. The image was suitably "mean and moody", they said, as well as providing the right "sense of occasion".
Another effective approach is wit. Anybody who's ever stood on a football terrace knows that sports fans can have quick minds and sharp tongues. In the same way, fans enjoy ads that poke fun at major events. When the Greek national football team won the Euro 2004 tournament against overwhelming odds, Adidas placed a full-page print ad next to the coverage. The image simply showed the celebrating team below the Adidas slogan, "Impossible is nothing". This kind of tricky, knowing advertising occasionally generates a buzz around the coffee machine.
As Nike has demonstrated time and time again, sports-related print advertising works best when it is gritty and confrontational. Much of my book concerns the existence – or otherwise – of the fey creature known as the metrosexual. But when they're reading the sports pages, men are at their most unapologetically masculine, or "retrosexual", to use another buzzword. Any imagery that enters the scrum needs to look as though it belongs there.