Adult Magazines Shift Pace

David Houston
Trying to convince advertisers and readers that the medium isn't dying, Magazine Publishers of America recently unveiled a series of print ads depicting what magazines might look like in the future.

"Britney Spears at 70: Still No Pants," reads a headline from Esquire's June 2050 edition, while laddie magazine Maxim went with a picture of a lab-manufactured tomato for its June 2105 cover. "Sexiest Cover In Decades," reads a headline, "Censors Relax Rules! Flesh is Back!"

Desperate for a larger piece of the shrinking print advertising dollar, magazine industry executives are making new efforts to convince businesses that they can still sell products. Wired magazine now sponsors the annual NextFest, which it bills as a mini World's Fair of futuristic technology and Runner's World gives Westin Hotel guests jogging maps of local streets and parks stamped with logos of magazines.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in adult content magazines. Squeezed between the peek-a-boo cleavage of men's magazines and hardcore Internet content, subscriptions to adult magazines have been on a steady slide for more than a decade. Playboy now claims 3 million readers, less than half of its 7 million peak in the 1970s. Penthouse, once with 4.7 million subscriptions, now reports fewer than 400,000. Hustler peaked at 3 million but now claims only a half-million readers. And Screw fell into bankruptcy two years ago after publisher Al Goldstein said he could no longer compete with the Internet.

Beginning with its July issue, Penthouse made its own dramatic statement in a bid to get mainstream advertisers and better placement on retail shelves. The magazine's new chief swept away all X-rated advertisements for phone-sex lines, escort services and hardcore movies.

"Anything that wasn't classy, we got rid of it," CEO Marc Bell said. "Those ads are not what our target audience wants to see. So we cleaned up the book."

By target audience, Bell means males between 18 and 34 years old — the most coveted advertising demographic because of their expendable income. They are the hardest group to reach. They are extremely visual and impatient. They watch fast-paced TV shows like "Fear Factor," the World Wrestling Federation's "Smackdown" and sporting events. They typically have not read magazines in anywhere near the numbers that women do.

But advertising experts say all that is changing. Young men, especially those concentrated in urban areas, have become deeply immersed in the shopping culture. Whereas most males once left shopping for clothes and grooming products to wives, girlfriends and mothers, they now spend hours in malls selecting the right shirt or face moisturizer.

Dan Neil won a Pulitzer Prize critiquing Ferraris, Porches and Hummers for the Los Angeles Times. Now he's added to his repertoire a column in the newspaper's Sunday magazine devoted almost entirely to critiquing other luxury items aimed at men. He recently wrote an 800-word ode to the new M3Power, a $12 battery-operated Gillette that vibrates as it glides across the skin.

"It was like shaving down to my soul," Neil wrote with such enthusiasm one would have thought he'd just slid from behind the wheel of the new Mercedes sports coup.

Bell's Plan
This is what Bell knows and says he intends to capitalize on at Penthouse.

"We want to attract advertisers for men's products. Shavers and deodorants, liquor and car ads, that's what we want," he said.

Bell, a brash, 37-year-old Florida investment banker, bought Penthouse in a fire sale after legendary publisher Bob Guccione's General Media filed for bankruptcy two years ago. Bell promised to "soften" the magazine and turn it around in three years. It was an ironic twist for a magazine Guccione founded in 1965 for the explicit purpose of out-raunching Playboy.

The numbers weren't in yet when Bell spoke in June, but he said that the magazine was selling briskly and features more general-interest articles and the photos were gauzy and featured "less pink," as Guccione might say. The August issue features articles on the NBA and a profile of the actor Denis Leary along with the usual Pets, Bell said.

Already, the ploy has paid off in other ways. Penthouse grabbed liquor ads for its July issue that it hadn't had before and 7-Eleven, Circle K and Barnes & Noble have agreed to give the magazine better store placement, Bell said.

"By the end of the year, we expect our circulation will be back up to a million," he said.

But Bell has detractors. Some say smut is smut no matter how it's dressed and that advertisers and readers will see through the ploy. Why would advertisers run the risk of alienating customers with ads in adult magazines when they can reach the same male audience in Maxim, FHM and other general-interest male magazines?

Editorial Content
"Penthouse has been chasing mainstream advertising and better store placement forever," said Robert Crosland, managing director of AdMedia Partners, which advises magazines on financial matters. "I don't think the problem is the X-rated ads, however. I suspect it might have more to do with the X-rated editorial content, which many people don't wish to have easily accessible to minors in stores and which mainstream advertisers are afraid would result in boycotts and unfavorable publicity for their products."

Advertisers have too many choices now to risk alienating a slice of their market with content they might find objectionable. Even in mainstream publications, advertisers can dictate whether their products are displayed close to an objectionable article or picture, or even in a particular issue at all, experts say.

"We've taken special steps to ensure our ads are as far away from certain types of editorial as they can be," said Dan Binder, whom the Starcom Worldwide agency buys ads for dozens of products from, including ads for Coca-Cola, Johnnie Walker and Kellogg.

Hustler publisher Larry Flynt believes Bell should accept the reality of the technology age and diversify Penthouse into DVDs and Internet content.

"I'm not going to say it's going to become extinct because some people will always want to feel that magazine in their hands, but it's never going to have the impact it once had," Flynt said.

But industry experts dispute this dire prediction. Television offers a wide audience, but magazines allow advertisers to better target their products, they say. And although Internet advertising is growing rapidly, magazines still have 17 percent of the $141 billion annual U.S. advertising market — more than twice what the Internet sees.

It's numbers like those that lead Jay Kirsch, another executive with AdMedia Partners, to conclude, "The magazine industry is extremely healthy."