Defining masculinity for the 21st century is a tough job. A new generation of men's magazines is making a stab at it - and claiming early success in sales.
While established men's titles like Esquire and Details suffered sharp dips in circulation last year, newcomers like Maxim and Icon saw prodigious leaps in readership in 1997.
"Most men's magazines are locked in a time capsule that's 20 years old. They haven't figured out this new generation of guys. We have, and we've struck oil," claims Lance Ford, Maxim's publisher.
Maxim, the fastest-growing men's magazine in the United States, launched last April with a circulation of 175,000. This month, says Mr. Ford, the magazine's circulation will reach 350,000. Similarly, Icon magazine published its first issue last February with a circulation of 100,000, now projected to rise to 150,000 this month.
Some of the leading men's titles are thematic - GQ and fashion; Men's Journal and outdoor adventure, for example - and that's their weakness, says Ford. Maxim is packaged as a general interest magazine because "most guys are generalists," he says. "Guys want to know a little bit about a lot of stuff."
Ford's view of his market is not a flattering one. "Stories in Maxim are short because men have no attention span. Our articles are funny because guys tend to relate to one another through humor."
And of course, there are also the well-endowed female beauties who have graced the covers of each of Maxim's four issues. "We get readers hooked with a beautiful woman on the cover and then draw them in with all this other fabulous information. You can spend millions of dollars researching guys and you'll come back to the same six subjects: sex, sports, beer, gadgets, clothes and fitness," Ford says. To hammer the point home, Maxim lists all six on the cover of every issue.
Martin Walker, a magazine industry analyst, says "Most men's magazines are by definition lifestyle and general- interest publications. It just happens that Maxim is more low-brow ... than some of its competitors."
Other publications are expanding their editorial horizons in just the opposite direction. Men's Journal recently profiled writer David Mamet and explored how the press covered the Frank Gifford affair. It describes its own contents as, "Sports, Fitness, Adventure, Ideas."
Similarly, Icon subtitled, "Thoughtstyle Magazine," promises cutting-edge notions on pop culture. On its masthead, where other titles often list contributing writers or editors, members of the magazine's "Iconnoisseur Experts Committee" appear. Its November/December issue critiques the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, noting their penchant for murder and revenge, and explains how television food chef Emeril Lagasse has made the kitchen safe for men. (Another Icon magazine with the same name is geared to homosexual readers.)
The tag line for P.O.V. is "The men's magazine with the smart point of view." Along with a showcase of the "coolest gear" for winter sports in the December/January 1998 edition are stories on Americans doing business in Prague and a profile of Bill Burke, the 31-year-old president of the TBS Superstation.
Some of the new titles focus on technology, like Verge, dedicated to "gear and gadgets for real life."
The winter 1997 issue reviews 100 new high-tech products, ranging from a fly-fishing vest resembling Batman's utility belt to computerized skis and Web TVs. The issue also compares five financial-planning software packages.
New competition among men's magazines comes at a time of record-setting advertising in US magazines.
The US magazine industry is enjoying its best year-to-year growth in advertising since 1984, says Jeanine Moss, vice president, communications at the Magazine Publishers of America. This year advertisers poured nearly $13 billion in ad dollars into US magazines - a 14 percent increase compared with 1996.
Ad boom or not, new men's magazines have a long way to go before they catch up with Men's Health (1.4 million circulation) or Playboy (2.5 million circulation).