Straight flesh, nothing fancy

Penthouse is 30, but refuses to give in to middle-aged centre spread. Rosie Millard reveals all

In 1965, when the Pill, permissiveness and the Beatles were riding high, Penthouse, "the magazine for men", was launched in Britain. It was perfect timing: it had made it in America; swinging London had to be next.

The invention of one Bob Guccione, Penthouse was designed to go slightly further than its then sole competitor, the somewhat anodyne Playboy; and it did. A series of leaflets announcing its arrival caused not only a rumpus in the House of Commons, but even an edition of Panorama. Indeed, the vision of "glamour" girls showing pubic hair for the first time ever in a magazine, meant that up to 400,000 people dashed out each month to buy a copy.

Women's Lib was still a few years away when Penthouse was born and its formula of "men's" editorial - features on fashion, Woody Allen, cars and wine vintages, all spiced up with a bit of tits and ass - proved a winning combination.

Thirty years on, however, the "all-round men's read" is verydifferent. It had to change to survive. "It appeared at the time when men could kick women in the teeth and get away with it," says Deric Botham, the editor. "It was read by classy men. The club man, who played golf and smoked a pipe, was as interested in the editorial as the girls. Then the PC Eighties came along."

Indeed. The PC Eighties were nearly the end of Penthouse, even though the magazineemployed a female editor, Isabel Koprowski, the bespectacledgraduate and former Forum supremo. Weary WH Smith managers became accustomed to raids from members of the feminist Off The Shelf campaign, who would storm in, grab every copy of Penthouse (and Mayfair, the only other adult title stocked by Smith's) and handcuff themselves to tills.

Stars such as Pia Zadora ("bared for Britain") and Madonna ("exclusive from the archives") tried to remind the market that Penthouse's "pets" were still original and best, but essentially, Penthouse's genteel mix of soft porn, plus middle-brow culture (features by Martin Amis, interviews with Graham Greene), was too tame for either party. Those who wanted basic porn went to newsagents where racier competitors were on display, and men who wanted a wider selection of "men's" features bought the new arrivals, Esquire, GQ, Arena and, later, Loaded. Three years ago, circulation nose-dived - to 40,000.

Enter Deric Botham, ex-head of marketing for Currys, brought in by the publisher, Northern & Shell. "I applied simple marketing principles," says Mr Botham, a man who believes that a gift for flogging fridge-freezers is basically the same as flogging men's mags. "I introduced scams. Headline grabbers. Surveys about the size of men's willies. Pictures of a Princess Di-lookalike in the nude. Men love that. The magazine became less intellectual, and more aggressive.

"I've spent the past two years leading a campaign which says to men, 'What are we, men or mice? Don't be ruled by feminists.' " The advertising term "new bloke" might have beeninvented for Mr Botham. "Feminists can take running jump into the Thames."

The magazine got raunchier. The "men's" features disappeared altogether (wine and fashion) or became a shrunken interlude between the strip-sequences (cars). The women were more explicit; there were phone-lines, naughty adverts and a new venture, "two-girl erotica". "Men who read Penthouse want to look at pictures of women with their clothes off," says Mr Botham. Sales climbed to between 120,000 and 200,000 (when the Princess Di-alike appeared on the cover).

The estimated readership is now about 377,000; but as the contents changed, so have the readers, The pipe-smoking, golf-playing Penthouse man of 30 years ago is gone. Demographically speaking, 62 per cent of the readers now come from the C2, D and E social brackets. As and Bs account for only 14 per cent of the readership.

According to head of advertising Graham Craine, Penthouse's average reader is not all that interested in cinema, fashion or music anymore. Apart from the 10 per cent of women who buy the magazine, the 1990s Penthouse subscriber is into bloke's things. He uses lots of aftershave, smokes a lot, drinks lager, attends football matches and will be between 15 and 24. He might also own a Ford Granada. "But of course, they're all wankers," says Mr Craine, with startling accuracy.

Almost as important, the average Penthouse reader won't really go in for what is perceived as hard porn. As far as Mr Craine is concerned, his main rivals for advertising revenue are not Paul Raymond's Club International, or Galaxy's Fiesta (both of which sell a lot more than Penthouse), but men's magazines on the second shelf down.

"It's terribly soft porn," says Mr Craine. "Yes, we have two-girl shoots, but they aren't allowed to touch one another explicitly. Penthouse is the only magazine published in Britain that carries mainline brand advertising, from the likes of Ford, Philips, Sega, and Silk Cut. Most companies don't want their product associated with an overtly pornographic environment. The buyers at the top agencies tend to be young, politically correct people. We need to please them. We like to think that the fact that WH Smith still carry it gives it the stamp of acceptability. They, and John Menzies are our major outlets."

Not so, according to WH Smith. "We make up a very small amount of Penthouse sales," claims Simon Gage from WH Smith's marketing department. "Very small. I'm not prepared to give another comment."

However, the magazine's renewed success has boosted the adult branch of Northern & Shell publications. There is now a total of 16 titles, the majority of which fall into the new category of "girl next door" pornography. There is a magazine with young women taking their clothes off for the first time (New Talent), middle-aged women (Real Wives), Asian women (Asian Babes), even older women (Fifty and Over).

Each title promotes and "cross-fertilises" the others. Penthouse, the grande dame, presides over them all but, Botham admits, these somewhat tackier newcomers will probably overtake the 30-year-old title eventually.

Still, in the States, the American title was the first of its kind to bring out a companion CD-rom disc - the Penthouse Interactive Virtual PhotoShoot in which the "pets" appeared in live action sequences. According to Publishing magazine, adult CD-Rom entertainment is "inevitable"; and perhaps it is inevitable that a product whose title, 30 years on, has become shorthand for erotica, should lead the way.

In the meantime there's Deric Botham's latest brainchild. He waves a plastic-wrapped magazine which comes with a video. "Amateur Video. This is our new publication. Early indications show that this will be a best- seller. Showing readers' footage, what a glorious idea! Genius!

"We even have a feature in here showing how you can make your own porn movie! Everyone has camcorders now. I believe the whole country will become a porn shop; readers shooting pornographic sequences which we publish and sell to other readers. Everyone will be involved - this is the way forward."

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