A Decade of Laddism

Laddism is officially a decade old, as the lads' mag Loaded celebrates its tenth birthday next month. Alex Benady takes a look at how laddism has grown over this time and assesses its effect on today's popular culture.

Did you know that most women like nothing more than sitting around in expensive underwear, legs akimbo, while gazing lecherously into your eyes? Or that they will have sex with you, and possibly your friends too, at a moment's notice - and thank you for it afterwards?

Were you aware that "rock hard-man Lemmy" is more of a bloke than the comedian Simon "Fast Show" Day because he regularly shits outdoors? And have you heard that the 37-year-old "artist" and college lecturer Mark McGowan is currently "sailing" from London to Glasgow in a shopping trolley, using a broom as his sole means of propulsion?

No? Well that probably means that you have not been reading your fair share of lads' mags recently. Consequently, you have failed to absorb many of the truths that these titles hold to be self-evident: namely, that women are for shagging, beer is for necking, kit is for owning and your mates exist to support you while you do these things.

It is what you might call a polarising outlook. On the one hand are those who feel it's a completely distorted representation of modern man, designed in the words of one academic to make him "selfish, loutish and inconsiderate to a point of infantile smelliness" and to promote the love of "drinking, football and fucking ... in that order of preference".

On the other are those who feel that lads' mags harmlessly reflect the realities and concerns of twentysomething men today. "Young men have always enjoyed freedom and recklessness. We allow them to let off steam. It's not the totality of what men are about, just one aspect of what they enjoy," Eric Fuller, the group publishing director of IPC Ignite, which produces Loaded and Nuts, says.

He scorns the argument that the magazines have any corrosive effect on men or society at large. "I just don't accept that we are making society worse. It's not a momentous and sober moment of judgment, it's only entertainment," he argues.

Whichever view you hold, there can be no doubting the immense cultural clout of magazines such as FHM, Loaded, Maxim and Bizarre, which claim collective sales of two million and a readership of more than eight million men and women a month.

They have become an important segment in the magazine market and the values they espouse have become ubiquitous, affecting the content of film, TV, fashion, music and, of course, advertising. Their impact is so pervasive that it is easy to forget that lads' mags, in their current form at least, are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.

This year, they are ten years old. Loaded, which established the sector, celebrates its tenth anniversary next month, while Emap's market-leading FHM is ten in August. Loaded, as you might have predicted, is celebrating with a veritable orgy of laddist events and giveaways. But as the sector stands on the brink of adolescence, it's worth asking whether there are any signs that lads' mags are growing up and what effect, if any, have they had on society at large.

Ironically for an industry devoted to the glorification of a state of permanent irresponsibility, the evidence is that the lads' mags sector has matured. That is to say it is showing all the characteristics of a mature market.

For one thing, its period of explosive sales growth lies years in the past. ABC figures suggest that the overall market is in marked decline.

Loaded, for instance, went from zero to 457,000 copies in four-and-a-half years. But sales have been dropping since the second half of 1998 and have settled during the past year at around 262,000 copies an issue.

FHM peaked at 775,000 copies in the first half of 1998 and is now selling a shade over 600,000 copies an issue while Maxim peaked in the second half of 2000 at 328,000 and is now selling 243,000 an issue. Between them they have lost nearly a third of their circulation from their highest points. This can, in part, be explained by demographic changes. The cohort of 20- to 30-year-old men upon whom the sector depends declined by nearly 30 per cent from two million to 1.7 million between 1994 and 2000.

But the rest is the result of the excitement coming off the market. "People weren't simply buying into laddism. There was a broader cultural buzz around. 'Cool Britannia' with bands such as Oasis and Blur and the aftermath of Euro 96. These magazines exploded on to the market, drawing in a much wider audience than their core target. That has slowly evaporated and the sector now looks a little bit tired," Adam Crowe, the press director at PHD, says.

As a result, the sector has been busy trying to segment itself along demographic and usage lines. A couple of years ago, there was a spate of new magazine launches, such as Cabal's Mondo and IPC's Later, designed to pick up more mature readers as they fell off the end of the Loaded/FHM market. They came and mostly went anonymously.

Earlier this year, IPC and Emap took a new tack, launching Zoo and Nuts as the first (and almost identical) men's weeklies. While both publishers deny they are lads' mags (they are men's magazines), they have a very similar formula - tits, jokes and sport, albeit packaged in an even more tabloid fashion. "They are simply a cross between the monthlies and the Daily Star," Elliott Parkus, the press director at ZenithOptimedia, says.

In one way, they appear to be an attempt to mine a similar, albeit deeper, vein of working-class masculinity that the monthlies did ten years ago.

But, like many industry observers, Parkus has doubts about their ability to reinvigorate the sector. "The problem is that when the monthlies launched, they were clearly tapping into a vast unexploited reserve of consumer demand. It doesn't feel the same for the weeklies. Women have the weekly habit largely as a result of their traditional role as housewives. The role has gone but the habit has persisted. It will be hard, but not impossible, to create the same habit for men."

He points out that Heat, Emap's showbiz gossip weekly, was initially aimed at both men and women. It bombed and it was only when it relaunched exclusively for women that it became a success.

Other cynics joke that the level of content in Nuts and Zoo is so low that anyone who finds them interesting is unlikely to be able to read.

But the content of lads' mags has also matured, in the sense that they have become more focused and more true to the essence of their market.

Paradoxically, however, this has made the magazines markedly less mature in their approach.

Clear evidence of this comes from FHM, which, according to its editor, David Davies, has attempted to resist the fragmentation of the men's magazines market. "We decided we could retain our mass appeal by focusing on the big universal truths." These "truths" are basically sex and humour.

As a result, comparing a ten-year-old copy of FHM with the latest edition is like looking at War and Peace next to Viz. A decade ago, FHM was happy to run a 3,000-word piece on sexual harassment. These days, the longest piece is probably a 600-word Q&A with a page-three girl. ("Would you consider joining the mile-high club?")

But the humour is key, leavening what would otherwise be a pretty stodgy diet of soft porn. "Without the humour it would be pretty crass," Davies concedes.

However, he denies charges of dumbing down. "FHM is a very positive, funny, mainstream, smart magazine. Fewer words does not equate to stupider. If you are reading FHM, you are engaging in fairly high levels of thought," he argues.

In their defence, Davies and Fuller make a case that will be familiar to many advertisers and agencies, namely that all they are doing is innocently reflecting the preferences of their target market.

But many think they are also reinforcing a set of obnoxious values. "They are more cynical and more calculated than they used to be. They have become coarser for a coarser society," the Fallon managing partner, Michael Wall, says.

Others argue that the magazines have taken a more strident tone over the years. "They've moved from being laddish to being laddist, with less irony and more aggression," Richard Kelly, the planning director at Leith London, says.

What's more, these laddist values have started to seep off the pages into the wider world, Bethany Benwell, a feminist academic who lectures in English studies at the University of Stirling, says. "I think these magazines have both tapped into and led young men's experiences. They have had a profound effect on gender politics in society."

One example of this is what has been called the increasing "pornographication" of culture, in which attitudes to and images of pornography have become more widespread and acceptable. "While lads' mags are not the sole culprit, I don't think it is a coincidence that this has happened over the past ten years. By adopting the design and values of top-shelf magazines, they have helped bring pornography into the mainstream," Dr Peter Jachimayak, a lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Glamorgan, says.

Further evidence closer to home comes in the form of a recent spate of surprisingly sexist ads, principally for cars and beers. Even in the 70s heyday of sexist advertising when it was OK to leer at women, it was never acceptable to sneer in quite the same way that some ads do now.

Toyota's recent Corolla ad, for instance, shows a wife-swapping party.

A fat woman picks up a set of Toyota keys and all the men claim it as theirs. The clearly laddish joke is: "I would even shag a fat bird to drive a Toyota." The Carling Extra Cold campaign is laden with oafish laddishness. One ad shows a man drinking in the pub while his wife is giving birth. A recent poster execution simply showed a wedding cake with a model of a fat bride and a thin groom.

While Saatchi & Saatchi chooses not to defend its Toyota ad, Leith London, which created the Carling campaign, argues it is not gratuitously unpleasant. "There is a good product-centred reason for this approach," Kelly says. "We are trying to portray emotional coldness. Given that so many women drink beer, it is not in our interests to sneer at them - it's just an observation about blokes being a bit crap."

It's a telling remark because it perfectly sums up the debate about lads' mags and lads' attitudes. On the one hand are those who see lad culture as harmless fun. On the other are those who see it as offensive and reactionary.

But perhaps in the end the debate doesn't break down on sex lines so much as generational ones. Many brought up with the political correctness of the 70s and 80s see the current generation as superficial and lacking any political awareness or analysis.

Certainly many older observers are puzzled by the attitudes of younger people - particularly women. "I am sometimes amazed at how shallow the younger generation has become. For instance, some of my women students wear a T-shirt with the words 'Porn Star' on. They seem to have no political framework. Their analysis is rarely deeper than the paper it is written on," professor John Beynon, the author of Masculinities and Culture, says.

In the other camp lie those who see the traditional concerns of feminisism as yesterday's debate. "Life has changed for most young men. Culture has been feminised and women are no longer oppressed. They are up for it too. Why do you think we have a million female readers per issue?" Davies says.

For him, the carpers are fighting old battles. "It's a bit like your grandfather droning on about World War II. It's irrelevant to people's reality today. The world has moved on. The Germans are our friends now. Get over it."

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