Constructing Lads mags – Playboy to Nuts

Concern at praise for teen magazines over sex education

Estelle Cooch looks at the demise of Nuts and asks what the competition of original porn mags Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler, can tell us about lads mags today.

A decade on from its launch, the owners of sexist “lads mag” Nuts announced this week it was due to close, after sales plummeted from 300,000 at its peak, to 30,000 today. Along with main rival Zoo, Nuts was part of the new era of lads mags, both of them markedly more extreme in their portrayal of women than the magazines that came before.

Virtually all the news coverage of Nuts’ closure has focused on the rise of online porn. Certainly this has had a major impact, but it is not the only issue at hand.

One answer lies in what is known as “product differentiation”, how one product relates to others on the market. Another possible reason lies in what is happening to masculinity at the moment.

It is worth going back to the very first men’s magazine rivalry, that emerged in the 1950s and 60s between Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler.

Nowadays Playboy, and its owner Hugh Hefner, are household names. In the school where I work Playboy branded items are everywhere. But as odious as Hefner is, he is also an incredibly savvy businessman who managed to tap into and exploit the cultural themes of post- World War Two America.

Before Playboy pornographic magazines were not circulated widely. Writer Gail Dines credits Hefner with bringing porn “from the backstreet to Main Street”. When Playboy was launched in 1953, it was an overnight success with 53,991 sold in its first month, rising to one million by 1959.

This is quite surprising. In its very first issue Playboy said “we want to make it clear from the start: we aren’t a family magazine”. While today this might not be particularly controversial, for an editorial to state this in the 1950s was close to sacrilege.

In this period, according to social historian Stephanie Coontz, there was an unprecedented rise in the marriages, a decrease in divorce and an increase in fertility rates. The family was everywhere and hailed by the mass media. The kind of characteristics that we now think of as traditional masculinity – the male breadwinner with wife at home – was forged in this period. Many single people were investigated for being homosexual, and by extension communists, as the two were often linked in the McCarthy years.

And yet out of this context a new fear around masculinity emerged – the idea that men were in danger of being emasculated, by women who were overdomesticating them. It was these men, those who feared settling down, who worked hard, but slept around, who became the audience for Playboy. These anti-women ideas were certainly not new, but if they were to be linked to an anti-marriage position they had to be differently articulated.

At a time when being a bachelor could mean being accused of homosexuality, Playboy enabled single men to portray themselves as attracted to the most beautiful women around.

But – and this is crucial – men did not just buy the magazine for the photos of women. It had articles on current affairs, consumer goods and sex advice. Hefner told his readers “we enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors-d’oevre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietszche, Jazz, Sex.”

But what does this all have to do with Nuts? The Playboy phenomenon was based around constructing an idea of men that was supposedly cultural, sexual and intellectual. It was one that could continue appealing to men even as society changed, as long as its cultural content moved with the times.

The same applies today. The Economist found in 2012 that glossier magazines seemed to be “recession-proof”. This is partly because they are less reliant on advertisements, but also because when money is tight, people are more likely to see a better magazine as a worthwhile investment. They offer, to quote one editor, “an emotional sanctuary in uncertain times”.

Nonetheless, back in the 60s, Playboy’s sanctuary status soon came under threat when Penthouse was launched in 1969, swearing to make its pictures more explicit by becoming the first magazine to reveal pubic hair.

Then in 1974 the magazine Hustler was born. Hustler remains today the lead “hard-core” publication in America. One recurring theme was the construction of the reader as a man who likes “tasteless humour”, and who simply lacks the financial ability to live like a playboy or own a penthouse.

Yet in studies of the average Hustler reader, it was often found he actually had a higher income than those who read Playboy. This goes to the heart of a clever, but unusual marketing strategy that characterises some of the more successful porn mags. By allowing the real reader to not see himself as the intended reader it enables him to distance himself from the more outrageous parts of the magazine. The tagline for Loaded is the perfect example of this: “For men who should know better”.

Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler have transformed their operations to stay afloat in the modern porn market, but they learnt important lessons about how to do this. While Playboy retained the more “respectable” market, Hustler went more extreme, now running the website “Barely Legal”.

Penthouse was squeezed in the middle with the worst of both worlds – it was neither soft-core enough to get the Playboy market, nor hard-core enough to win over Hustler readers.

This is the position Nuts finds itself in today. It can’t quite poach the market of glossier, more wide-ranging magazines, FHM and Loaded, nor can it compete with more extreme, free online content.

The online industry is now worth a staggering $96 billion per year. Porn was the pioneer of new business models such as subscriptions, streaming and videos. It made it easy for small businesses to enter into the market with little capital and it is hugely profitable for hotels who offer a variety of pornographic films. In 2009 internet advertising finally overtook the revenue gained by television ads.

But what the glossier FHM and Loaded do well, which they cannot do online, is portray their reader as a “whole man”, not just a “real man”, as Nuts claimed was important. They feature interviews with Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and cultural reviews. If all Nuts can present is “real men” and “real girls” what is the point in buying?

In a time of crisis this matters. Men are told they should be sexually active, in shape, well-off bachelors – the modern Don Draper perhaps. But in reality, according to an ONS survey in January of this year, record numbers of men (26 percent) now live at home, increasing each year with unemployment. Why would they buy the “real”, when they want the fantasy?

There is a similar dilemma for women. On the one hand those at the top need women to be financially independent, to be consumers, to buy things. On the other hand they want to them to buy things that reinforce a more traditional femininity. They want them to feel responsible for the welfare of the home, while not actually being confined to it.

These contradictions can lead to people asking all kinds of questions about the system, and the way they are told to be within it. Today the new women’s movement is often characterised by attempts to “deconstruct gender” entirely, rather than the identity politics of the 1980s. This is much easier terrain for the left.

Indeed so many questions are being asked that the emerging campaigns can become political battlegrounds. The vocal campaign “No more page 3”, was recently mired in controversy after it released what is, at best, a highly dubious, campaign ad.

Despite, and perhaps because of, these arguments, the new campaigns are imaginative and vibrant when it comes to getting their message across. When everything capitalism says that women and men should be starts to become impossible, as it does in a time of economic crisis, suddenly all kinds of other things are made possible.

The closure of Nuts is a victory for campaigners. It is also a chilling signal of the growth of online, more extreme content that has sucked in the readership of Nuts. But importantly, it points to the potential for broad campaigns around the issue of sexism today.

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