Monday, 7 April 2008

The Magazine Whose Title Defies Feeble Punnery

Title: Maxim
Cover date: April 2008

In 2004, Maxim UK appointed an American editor, Greg Gutfeld, with the remit to revolutionise the title and make it stand out in an increasingly homogeneous market. The result was an astonishing magazine. Surreal, daring, iconoclastic, hilarious, unafraid to take risks – even some of the nudey pictures were given a bizarre twist, featuring concepts such as “You Are The Fly” and “You Are The Slug”, in which the reader got an insect’s or mollusc’s-eye view of a glistening topless lovely chasing him with a swat or a salt-shaker. But the inevitable glossy images of nearly-naked women seemed almost incidental to the mag, which showed a consistently fierce irreverence towards everything on its pages. I loved it. It was the first time in years I’d enjoyed reading a lad mag. I enthused about it to everyone I knew and urged them to read it.

No-one did. Maxim spectacularly failed to pull out of its sales nosedive. After two years, Gutfeld’s contract was not renewed and Maxim was relaunched as a monthly version of the weekly lads’ titles that had enjoyed so much recent success. It stopped taking the piss out of everything and started rotating its cover between the likes of Gemma Atkinson, Sophie Howard and Emily Scott. In other words, rather than genuine celebrities, women who were largely known – if at all – for being the sort of women who appeared on Maxim covers.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t what the readers wanted either. With sales dipping below 100,000 for the first time in 2007’s final batch of circulation figures, Maxim has been rejigged yet again. Although most magazines undergo regular overhauls, to go through so many different iterations in such a short space of time is unusual (certainly compared with US Maxim, which has stuck with pretty much the same boring template since its launch and is looking decidedly dated) and reflects the difficulties in which Maxim finds itself.

Maxim’s choice of cover girls since the relaunch clearly demonstrates the changing nature of the magazine. Goodbye WAGs and models; hello actual famous people.

I’m not convinced Mischa Barton is the ideal cover star, though. The new, classier look of the front page (steely grey background, dark red fonts) suggests Maxim is aiming for an older reader these days, not the teenage market it once attracted. I’m a 32-year-old man who sat through all four seasons of The O.C., and even I’m not interested in Barton. She is too young, for one thing; not notably talented, for another; and, crucially, not very sexy, certainly by the traditional standards of men’s magazines. March’s issue featured the far more sultry Eva Mendes and May’s has Sarah Michelle Gellar who, while also not classic men’s-mag totty, is at least age-appropriate. So Barton is an odd choice, one which I strongly suspect was influenced by the availability of relatively cheap photos from US Maxim.

Elsewhere on the cover, there are clues among the sex and football staples that indicate Maxim’s shifting target readership: fitness, property, exotic holidays and a promise of “223 ways to look your best” in a fashion special. Not things you would imagine drooling 17-year-olds care much about. The mag’s slogan, which for years has crowed “The world’s biggest men’s magazine”, has become “Your life made easy”.

Page 8 The editor’s letter – have I mentioned that these set the tone? – is fairly straightforward, a matey, chatty intro that sticks safely to pointing up a few of the salient features in the mag. Its most telling aspect is that Michael Donlevy doesn’t mention sex or women until the final paragraph, another sign of where the title’s priorities now lie. It’s followed by Mailbox, which contains two interesting things (not the letters!): instructions on how to download sexy (on second thoughts that should probably be “sexy”) pictures to your mobile phone, and encouragement to go to the website and see more pictures, win prizes and join the debate on subjects brought up by features in the mag. Yes, that says “join the debate”. Maxim appears to be suggesting that its readers think! (And increase web traffic.)

Page 14 The front section is now called Inbox, which is less a sign of embracing technology and more an appropriation of what’s now a familiar everyday term. It starts with pictures of a woman in her underwear! Who could have guessed? I think it’s interesting, though, that the woman is 28-year-old mother of one Donna Air, wearing a cardigan.

I’m not suggesting that this makes Maxim exactly progressive or anything. But choosing this over all the other women and other photos and other poses they could have included shows, once more, a determination to grow up.

The rest of Inbox is largely composed of plugs for gadgets, games and kit and it’s fairly standard, but it also has The Maxim Debate, in which two writers (one woman, one man) consider the merits of couples fighting in public. Again, it’s not Plato, but it encourages readers to engage their brains – and it also gives women a voice in the mag, one that isn’t just talking about how much they love sex and being naked and kissing other girls and sexy sexy sex.

Page 34 The first feature is an interview with The League Of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith, with questions provided by readers. A good subject and, as with Heat, a good way to interact with readers (although curiously this doesn’t appear to be connected with the website). The next one is World Of Maxim, pictures of women taken from editions around the world. In the previous Maxim incarnation this feature was in danger of taking over the mag, but now it’s just two shots over three pages. Considering these pictures must provide a fairly cheap way of padding out your content, its reduction is surprising and a little gratifying.

Men’s mags have always included what might be termed Dumb Adventures and this is no exception, as writer Jerome Starkey goes to Afghanistan and attempts to play Buzkashi, which is best described as a cross between rugby and polo with a dead goat for a ball. This is a fun read – unless you’re the goat – with some vivid, energetic pictures, although not for the squeamish.

Still, I’d rather look at these pictures than the Mischa Barton spread, in which the insipid starlet strives to vamp it up for the camera and fails comprehensively. The interview tries its hardest to make her sexy, as these interviews always do, but the suggestive questions about nudity and her character’s lesbian experiences in The O.C. don’t go anywhere. Not only is Barton not sexy, she’s not funny or interesting either. I appreciate it’ll need to get somewhat chillier round Satan’s way before men’s mag cover stars are chosen for their sparkling wit or ability to interpret Ibsen, but this is a feeble and wan interview. The captions – tellingly, likely to be the only part of the feature originated by Maxim’s UK staff – are the best things about it.

Page 54 Comedy is another staple of lad mags, and Maxim’s four-part comedy tour of the British Isles continues with Rob Brydon’s guide to Wales. This is a fine idea, and kudos to Maxim for netting the talented and in-demand Brydon, but unfortunately comedians are rarely as funny in interviews as when working with prepared material. Even with careful editing, this is a little dry. Next is an article on the psychology of football, examining why the sport can turn even intelligent men into emotional wrecks, which isn’t the liveliest piece either. But once again it shows that Maxim is no longer content to print the Ten Wackiest Own Goals or whatever.

I feel as though I’m defending the mag quite a lot, so happily here come five pages of dross to dismiss! The Sexy Seven Sins is a trashy sexy-girl shoot dressed up as helpful sex-life advice, and it’s poorly conceived. Some of the tips are about how to overcome “sinful” feelings such as sloth, while others are about making envy or gluttony work for you in the sack. Just nonsense. It’s followed by another Dumb Adventure, sending writer Martin Robinson to train as an SAS sniper, which is more like it.

Page 81 Fashion never sits all that comfortably in the mass-market men’s mags – whose readers probably feel buying a non-porn magazine is girly enough without it being full of shoes – but Maxim has embraced it thoroughly with this 27-page special. Strangely, it seems to be aimed at a younger readership than the rest of the mag, with lots of bright colours and not-very-classy brands (Ben Sherman, Fred Perry) although there are attempts to be more cutting-edge such as a focus on six up-and-coming British imprints. Perhaps it will take a while for the fashion pages, which after all are primarily designed to attract advertising, to catch up with the mag, which can’t afford to distance itself from its established ad clients.

Page 117 I do like a good reviews section and this, in the main, is one. It’s not huge, perhaps reflecting the fact that in 2008 we’re bombarded with promotional material every day and we hardly need monthly magazines to join in, but it’s smart and audience-appropriate. While the reviews are not in-depth, I like that it affords games the same space as movies or DVDs, acknowledging that they’re of equal importance to most young(ish) men. I also like the little featurettes sprinkled through the section, wittily comparing two straight-to-DVD releases or rounding up debut albums. I was already warming to it when I turned to page 122 to find an interview with Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon, two of the UK’s finest and yet most mysteriously underappreciated comic actors. Big hooray!

Page 131 Outbox, whose section name seems even more arbitrary than Inbox, contains the stuff to fulfil the “Your life made easy” pledge – tips for all the most important things in men’s lives today: fitness, travel, cars, poker. Poker? It may sound a little silly, but with the game’s popularity increasing, it’s useful to know at least a little about it these days – just so you don’t feel left out of conversations, if nothing else. This is also a handy pretext for some cross-promotion of Maxim’s sister magazine, betting title Inside Edge! The fitness and food pages in particular are simple and practical, although it must be said these few pages aren’t going to make your life that easy. If this stuff is what Maxim is about now, it could do with more space.

Page 162 Where other mags might stick a list or an interview, Maxim devotes a page to Girl Talk and, once again, this isn’t two young nubile wannabes in their M&S underwear chatting about groping, as you might expect from a lad mag. It’s a proper column, written by proper writers. It’s thoughtful, witty and not shy of using words like “unmitigated” and “chivalry”. All right, this one’s about sex and has “DILDO” in the headline in big bold capital letters, but I think the crucial point is that it’s what a woman thinks, not a man’s idea of what women think.

It’s official: unlike Jackie Treehorn, Maxim has decided that it no longer wants to treat objects like women, man. The focus of the relaunched magazine is on men and what they want out of life, rather than women and how we can get their bras to fall off. That’s not to say it doesn’t contain any female flesh but, as with the Gutfeld version of Maxim, it really feels as if the shots of partially dressed women are the least important component of the issue, included mostly because it’s expected of lad magazines rather than because the editor wants them there. To put it crudely, Maxim was turning into a wank mag, and it certainly isn’t that any more.

Maxim’s problem might be that it’s spent too long being Maxim. A magazine-buying man in his late 20s and early 30s who has outgrown the loutish teenage idiocy peddled by lad mags since the early 1990s is going to pick up Men’s Health or GQ, while teenagers themselves are buying Nuts. I don’t doubt that the readership exists for a non-laddish middle-market magazine. The difficulty for Maxim lies in letting potential readers know that it is that mag. I think it needs to take more risks with the cover. Unlike the upmarket men’s mags and its rival Loaded, Maxim has never had a man as its cover star. If it’s serious about changing its image and readership so totally, it needs to shake things up even more than it already has. That could be a place to start.

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