One of the great media explosions in the 90s was the rise of the ‘lad mag’. Published monthly, these were titles like FHM, Ralph and People. They attracted a young, often slightly adolescent male looking for laughs, entertainment and a bit of excitement in their lives.
But in the late 2000s, the market seemed to die. Ralph went out of business in 2010, and FHM followed shortly after. It was a massive change, and a shock to the system of the market. Suddenly, magazines were considered endangered species.
One of the first things to consider about these types of magazines is the person reading them. In late 2007, one of the biggest things to rise was Facebook. Growing massively, it represented a massive increase in the amount of funny, snackable content that was the staple of the male lifestyle brand.
Other websites grew to accommodate, and more importantly integrate into these networks. They were more convenient and attractive for people to consume entertainment through, simply by nature of the medium. It was instant, quick and selective: all attractive attributes for readers. Not to mention, virtually free.
One of the biggest challenges of social, though, is that it is exactly that: social. That means a hesitancy to share scantily clad photos of women for men. If you’re a bloke, you don’t want the girls in your network to see you’re a fan of that type of thing. And why would you?
Of course the other phenomena was the extra-ordinary growth of porn. Increasingly, in order for men to get their daily experience of women, they turned to the readily available and generally free internet to sate their needs. And it blew away probably the most ubiquitous factor uniting the media consumption of men.
My theory is that this phenomena led to a change in the psychology of ‘lads’ entertainment – you either went down the full smut route or scaled up. The market didn’t disappear. The landscape simply changed.
In this period, though, we saw lad mags do very little to attempt to compete. Launching websites and focusing completely on providing more of the same content, only in digital, did very little to recognize how social and digital actually shifted the terms of content consumption.
Not only that, barely any of them realized that their content model needed to change. Sex suddenly changed from being the selling point of these magazines, to their weakest link – because sex was no longer an engaging point through the magazine medium.
Hearst, for example, recognized this, taking the Esquire magazine rapidly upmarket and recognizing the need for a shift in their content models early. And clearly it is working: these are the magazines seeing strong growth in the digital era.
Instead of targeting the men’s market though the unifying force of sex, they instead focus on what men want to be – creating an aspirational model based on interests and different examples of lifestyle.
Take two quite separate publications: Esquire and Mens Health. Both are relatively successful examples of magazines that still exist in the post-lad mag era. Esquire (www.esquire.com) is a magazine and media brand which exemplifies the upmarket man – who is suave, engaged and knows what he wants.
He represents the lifestyle of ambition, and wants the best: in style, politics, entertainment, food and drink, with the occasional beautiful woman validating this opinion. What doesn’t he want? Tits, booze and footy being thrown at him. Even though he may still like these things, they don’t represent the interests that he feels he should have.
Men’s Health again is similar. I very much doubt the majority of men who read that are satisfied with their current weight, or their current physique. But what does the magazine do? Gives them a clear paragon, interest group and lifestyle to define themselves too. And it is one which taps clearly into some general interests men hold: food, women, sex – but all in a way which defines itself into a lifestyle and revolves around a core interest: health.
And what is clear is that the lad mag had a great market for selling this lifestyle: sex. But with the abundance of freer and racier content offered through the anonymous web of the internet, this smashed apart the traditional core content offering of the lad mag. And they did very little to adapt their content models.
Now, instead, the winning formula has changed. Digital models and print models need to revolve around creating a compelling portal for men to engage with: and this is typically based on theming it around a core interest. That can be health. That can be cars. That can be travel. But it must engage those core sensibilities that drive the male market.
Why not sex you ask? Well, advertisers always were slightly on edge about providing strong revenue to a sex based product. At best, it is a tenuous link. At worst, in the modern day, you’re selling an inferior product – ultimately, when it comes to sex, porn is a better service than a lad’s mag, and consumers know it.
The future of the men’s lifestyle media market is in capturing their interests. Whether that be sport, cars, travel, style – the reality is the modern media company will be able to capture these interests and generate a lifestyle out of them. As a product, this will give an aspirational lifestyle that captures their core drivers, and more importantly, one that can easily cross borders.