MEDIA FORUM: Will sleaze make or break the lads’ mags sector? - You could argue that Conde Nast’s decision to fire GQ’s editor for offences against taste and decency has no ramifications outside the ever-so-chic corridors of Vogue

Here are two quotes from Campaign’s issue of 11 December last year. They appeared in a feature marking the tenth anniversary of GQ and both are courtesy of the GQ publisher, Peter Stuart. The first is about the magazine’s editor, James Brown, and his attempts to grow up: ’He’s discovered that there’s more to life than projectile vomiting and booze.’ The second is about how some of Brown’s early editorial excesses, following his appointment in 1997, were tempered by the classy corporate culture of Vogue House: ’There is that kind of Conde Nast reservation to make sure that any editor can’t go too far with anything.’

Here are two quotes from Campaign’s issue of 11 December last year.

They appeared in a feature marking the tenth anniversary of GQ and both

are courtesy of the GQ publisher, Peter Stuart. The first is about the

magazine’s editor, James Brown, and his attempts to grow up: ’He’s

discovered that there’s more to life than projectile vomiting and

booze.’ The second is about how some of Brown’s early editorial

excesses, following his appointment in 1997, were tempered by the classy

corporate culture of Vogue House: ’There is that kind of Conde Nast

reservation to make sure that any editor can’t go too far with

anything.’



Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Stuart was partially right, of course. After

vomiting and booze there’s always self-mutilation, S&M soft porn and

Nazis - all of which were to be found in the issue of GQ that cost Brown

his job. Stuart was back in the pages of Campaign last week, attempting

to put a positive spin on events. It was an accomplished performance. He

seemed surprised, nay, shocked, that his magazine had apparently started

veering from the one true path. GQ, he said, ’has suffered from a lapse

of taste and errors of judgment ... if we’d carried on doing this type

of issue, we would have moved into the lads’ magazine market.’ He added:

’We do not want to buy circulation in this way.’



Really? Had he forgotten who hired Brown in the first place? Or that

Brown, who previously edited Loaded, was hired precisely to bring some

’lads’ culture’ (and readers) with him? Hadn’t Stuart noticed what had

been happening to the magazine over the last 18 months or so? Where does

this high moral tone suddenly appear from?



Many buyers appear unconcerned about the background or the finer points

of publishing ethics. They’re just glad that Brown’s gone. This, despite

the fact that Brown stemmed a circulation decline (GQ’s last Audit

Bureau of Circulations figure was 132,185) and that the Nazi issue was

GQ’s biggest-selling issue ever. He turned the title around in

circulation terms, but the consensus is that he was creating an

increasingly undesirable advertising environment.



Buyers welcome the news that GQ is to retreat and will attempt to

recreate the values and style of the magazine’s VerMeulen (editor from

1991 to 1995) era. Tim Kirkman, the head of press at Carat, believes

that Brown was actually the victim of a complex calculation balancing

brand equity against circulation. ’GQ’s problem a couple of years back

was that it saw circulations of some of its rivals going through the

roof.



They feared that growth elsewhere would be at the expense of their

sales.’ In other words, GQ did indeed seek to buy circulation at the

expense of the brand. But FHM and Loaded didn’t cannibalise the GQ sale

as badly as expected. Panic over. Brown no longer needed.



Kirkman wouldn’t put it quite as cynically as that, of course, but he

does believe that GQ is right to refocus on brand equity. It’s merely a

business strategy decision. And the point is that niche premium product

is what Conde Nast does best. It’s uncomfortable with the idea of

anything else. In other words, we should be careful of drawing wider

conclusions from this regrettable one-off incident.



Outbreaks of taste and decency are rare but not unknown. Think back to

the aborted merger between the Daily Star and David Sullivan’s sleazy

Sport operation. When Express Newspapers’ management appreciated they

had created a hideously disfigured creature, they did the decent

thing.



Other issues - sex in teen titles; anorexic, junked-up models in

glossies - have had less clear-cut resolutions. The lads’ sector has

evolved between two niche sectors: the obscure and elitist male haute

couture press and the top-shelf porno titles. Is the market more fragile

than people realise?



Nigel Conway, the planning director of MediaVest, agrees that the

offensive GQ material was not a million miles away from what you can

find in FHM and Loaded. ’In fact, in my opinion, you’ll find far worse

there. That’s the whole point. Brown’s brief was to push the boundaries

a bit and deliver more circulation. All the titles have been pushing

each other. Everyone knew that sort of thing wasn’t really compatible

with Conde Nast’s culture.’ Conway thinks publishers would be foolish to

ignore the danger signals. He warns: ’When distributors worry about

whether they shouldn’t carry a certain title, you know you have trouble

on your hands. The next step is for it to go on the top shelf. It would

be a real shame if classier titles - and GQ might become one again -

were tainted by that.’



Tim McCloskey, the deputy managing director of BMP OMD, doesn’t expect

an outbreak of morality. He doesn’t think people in this business are

very moral. And W. H. Smith won’t put lads’ magazines on the top shelf

as they are not yet beyond the pale. ’Most in our business applauded

Conde Nast when it appointed Brown. He kick-started the men’s market

with Loaded.



The formula was not as successful at GQ but the influence of Loaded has

meant that all publishers have courted controversy. Even the relatively

upmarket pages of Esquire and Arena have been drowned in a sea of

testosterone and premium-priced lager. Some amalgam of alcohol, drugs,

soft pornography and bad taste jokes appear in all issues of most

titles.’



And McCloskey has a different take on the circulation issue. He

questions whether Brown would have had to go if he’d increased GQ’s

circulation by even greater amounts. ’There may be no excuse for bad

taste but in the final analysis it sells more copies. And we encourage

publishers to sell more copies. I am reliably informed that no

advertisers complained about the Nazis article.’



Steve Goodman, the director of press at MediaCom TMB, argues that the

advertisers in Loaded and FHM are aware of what they’re getting into -

and are quite happy. ’The problem has always been that in the eyes of

advertisers and media planners, GQ has always been the quality men’s

title.



That’s the Conde Nast heritage. I think the controversial issue was the

one where advertisers finally realised what they were actually getting.

It’s as simple as that.’



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