Magazines have a drink and let their hair down Media: Social niceties wear a lampshade as more periodicals play dirty, stirring up the party with alcohol, cigars and sex.

April 15, 1997|By David Armstrong | David Armstrong,SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

Sin is back big-time.

That's the message of the new wave of magazines for twentysomethings swamping newsstands and the mails, especially the magazines for young men.

Esquire, GQ and Details -- and geezer titles that purvey young flesh, like Playboy and Penthouse -- are being forced to share an increasingly crowded field. There's David (son of designer Ralph) Lauren's Swing, Times Mirror Corp.'s new boys and toys title Verge, Bob Guccione Jr.'s anticipated version of Italian men's mag Max, and British publisher Felix Dennis' new guy book Maxim.

These magazines go after young readers in various ways. But all feature writing rich in attitude, showcase ads that play against prim "politically correct" morality and extol sins that have passed the test of time: sex 'n' smoke 'n' drink.

"For men, sin never went out of style," observes Clare McHugh, Maxim's Harvard-educated, 35-year-old editor, the only woman helming an American men's mag. "Women have purge and binge cycles, but for men, it's pretty consistent. It just became less acceptable to relish sin for a while."

A spin-off of the randy British monthly Maxim, a somewhat tamer bimonthly U.S. Maxim, is bankrolled by $15 million of proprietor Dennis' money.

Dennis, 49, is an old hand at stirring things up. He is a veteran of Oz, a sexy, psychedelic mag that was hauled into the London docket in a celebrated obscenity case in the early '70s. He later made millions with movie and computer magazines, then launched Maxim, which went into the black after just two years.

McHugh sums up Maxim's philosophy thusly: " 'Being a guy is great.' Like Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmo, we have a definite point of view. There's nothing ambivalent about Maxim. It is heterosexual, relentlessly so."

Thus, Maxim's premiere U.S. issue has a feature on "babe management," a how-to on picking out sexy lingerie for her, a report on wenching and smoking big Havanas in Havana.

The latter piece is, of course, part of the current cigar mystique that Marvin Shanken and Cigar Aficionado puffed into existence.

Not coincidentally, tobacco figures very visibly in both ads and editorial content. Maxim's 176-page premiere issue carries two full-page ads for cigars, while Swing has a photo and story on Madonna smoking a stogie on "Letterman." The Material Girl! With Dave! Even ads for a mainstay of the sin industry -- alcohol -- give a starring role to smoke. Maxim's two-page spread for Beefeater gin pictures a male bartender lighting a cigar for a female martini drinker. "Live a little," purrs the copy.

One good thing for publishers about badness: It pays. With the notable exception of beer, alcohol ads have been virtually absent from the airwaves for years, and tobacco has been totally gone since the early '70s. Print media are thus attractive vehicles for sin ads, especially tobacco.

According to the Publishers Information Bureau, American magazines raked in $316.9 million from tobacco ads alone in 1996, 2.8 percent of total magazine ad revenue. The percentage is certain to be higher in under-30 mags.

The May issue of Swing, 24-year-old David Lauren's 3-year-old monthly, carries a full-page ad for Parliament Lights, a full-page ad for Kools, a two-pager for Marlboro Lights, and an inside back page for Camels.

Elsewhere in the 96-page issue is a two-page ad for Miller, a page for Cuervo Gold, a page for Chivas Regal and a back cover toasting Absolut vodka. Swing, it should be noted, ran a special health section in its March issue.

Continuing another twentysomething tradition -- relying on Daddy's money -- Swing runs ads for Ralph Lauren clothing, too. In between the ads in the May issue is a photo essay on "skysurfing" (dropping out of planes with snowboards) and a nostalgic look back at the Rat Pack (Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc., cigs and drinks in hand).

Swing bills itself as "the magazine about life in your 20s," and it can be argued that your 20s are for having fun with the wrong people. Twentysomethings believe they're immortal anyway. Given all that, the play given to sin ads in under-30 mags is still striking.

Even Might, the San Francisco-based bimonthly that publishes generally smart articles, isn't adverse to a little sin action. Thus, the two-pager for Johnnie Walker Red right inside the front cover of its March/April issue. As a cool guy lifts his glass of scotch, the ad copy snorts: "Politically correct? Here's to just being right."

It's all part of the most obnoxious, albeit catchy, advertising campaign of the past year. Leo Burnett USA crafted the campaign, festooning bus shelters and periodicals with photos of party time under-30s and snidely superior copy: "For the last time, it's not a lifestyle. It's a life."

"The Red Label message is about being real, being politically incorrect, comfortable with yourself, and not about an affectation," Barbara Kittridge, a media director at Leo Burnett, assured the Wall Street Journal.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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