Even Redbook finds sex attracts readers

Marketing: The more conservative women's magazine discovers what Cosmo has always known.

June 21, 1999|By Paul D. Colford | Paul D. Colford,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Barbara Rempe became upset during a visit to the public library. It was there that Rempe, a financial adviser from Long Island, first saw the April issue of Redbook, whose top cover line was "His Most Secret Love Wish."

On Page 129, Rempe learned the secret, and on Page 131, discovered still more titillation in a step-by-step guide.

Rempe says half the time she only glances at the subscription copies of Redbook that have come to her home before they go to the waiting room at her husband's chiropractic office. This time, though, she was thinking as a mother and shuddered at the idea that her 17-year-old daughter might pick up the issue.

"What are we teaching our children?" she asked. "I think we're robbing our children of their childhood."

To be sure, Redbook has responded to parental concerns about exposing children to sexually daring material intended for Mom. Which is why the word "Love" is substituted for "Sex" on those copies sent to subscribers and the eye-catching "Sex" appears on news-stand copies only.

But make no mistake: The 2.9-million-circulation Redbook, which for decades has targeted women with fashion, beauty and other service journalism, now counts sex as an important part of its editorial mix.

Indeed, Rempe, 61, has come upon a striking development among some of the leading women's magazines -- an increase in provocative sexual content as a way to attract younger readers and stand out on newsstands jammed with more and more titles each year. To varying degrees, Redbook, Glamour, Marie Claire, New Woman, the sexually frank Cosmopolitan and other magazines are doing what certain men's publications have done effectively for a long time. By increasing the amount of sexual information (and titillation), and luring readers with suggestive cover lines, the women's magazines have sought to boost their more lucrative single-copy sales while the industry as a whole continues to suffer dramatic declines in that market.

Newsstand sales of the leading national magazines have plummeted 40 percent in the past decade, according to a study done by Capell's Circulation Report, an industry newsletter. The top 20 sellers showed an even sharper falloff of 48 percent. For example, although the 2.8-million-circulation Cosmopolitan remains a giant, selling 1.8 million of its copies a month at newsstand and supermarket checkouts last year, the latter figure was down more than 700,000 from 10 years earlier.

At Redbook, editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour acknowledged in a recent interview that "His Most Secret Sex Wish" was one of the magazine's more risque articles. But Seymour went on to say that, if readers such as Rempe are offended by such material, it may be time for them to give up Redbook.

"It's harder and harder to grab someone's attention, so you have to do it visually," said Seymour, who took over in September and has enlivened Redbook's covers with electric-bright colors and bold cover lines aimed at young married women and mothers.

The median age of Redbook's female readers is 42.2.

"One of my directives is to bring in a younger audience," Seymour added. "This is not your mother's Redbook anymore."

It's not the Glamour some may remember, either. Or is it?

Bonnie Fuller, who raised circulation dramatically during her previous stints as editor-in-chief of the teen magazine YM, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, has brought added media attention to Glamour since she was hired to succeed longtime editor Ruth Whitney 10 months ago. Fuller's first issue in January sported a cover-to-cover redesign and shouted: "Doing it! (Sex) dos & don'ts Who wants what, how bad and how often."

One reaction in media circles to Fuller's editorial handiwork is that she has Cosmopolitanized what had been a more serious magazine during Whitney's 31 years in charge.

Sure, Fuller said, Glamour has been -- and continues to be -- a much more diverse magazine than Cosmopolitan, a rival for the attention of younger women. The June Glamour has a piece on women serving questionably long jail terms for minor offenses and another on the serious financial risk of being without disability insurance. "Glamour is not just doing sex and relationships, which is what Cosmo does," she added. "But sex is an area of interest to women 18 to 34 and they write to the magazine, they buy it, they respond to it."

Yes, they have. They responded to Fuller's first Glamour by buying 1.3 million copies at newsstands. That was the magazine's highest newsstand sale of the decade.

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