Saturday, 12:00am
21 February 2004

What do men want?

The Brits are good at finding new lows in the lowest common denominator. Will the rest of the world copy their new weekly lad mags? Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for

For years Britain’s most durable cultural export, held in high regard around the world, was the BBC. Lately, though, some of Britain’s most successful media creations have boasted a much less elevated tone. Many American readers and viewers are probably unaware that the men’s monthly magazine Maxim and the singing talent competition American Idol are based on highly popular British formats. I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!, which has just finished its third run in Britain, has aired once in the US and looks set to generate other global offshoots. If you’re after lowest-common-denominator concepts with huge potential to travel, Britain’s publishers and TV producers can offer a never-ending supply.

The latest publishing idea, believed to be the first of its kind, is the men’s weekly magazine. In January, Britain’s already over-supplied news-stands greeted not one but two new titles, slugging it out for supremacy. Zoo Weekly, the first to be announced, is published by Emap, home of FHM; and Nuts (no explanation required) is published by IPC, which invented the lad mag with Loaded ten years ago.

At first glance these two magazines might seem to be virtually indistinguishable. Both titles have red mastheads with black drop shadows, black bars insisting that they are the best, and covers stuffed with cover-lines, photos and a semi-clad woman. But there are subtle distinctions. Zoo – '100 pages of girls, football & funny stuff' – is the more gleefully brainless of the two. 'It’s not going to make you think, or question things,' confesses editor Paul Merrill, though in the next breath he declares that 'Zoo man' doesn’t like to be patronised. He promises a weekly fix of 'all-round stupidity' and delivers the goods in an early issue with an in-depth Christina Aguilera interview ('Sure, I get naked quite a bit'), a charming picture of a Romanian woman with a twelve-stone tumour, and page after page of breasts.

By comparison the first issue of Nuts was almost tasteful. There were no pictures of hands sliced up by barbed wire fences to savour and, apart from some body painting, the women kept their bras on. Nuts makes better use of photographs – one picture story showed an exploding hand grenade in close-up – but both magazines use essentially the same endlessly recycled conventions of mass-market design. Every page is a throbbing patchwork of elements: boxes, captions, coloured panels, numbered paragraphs, dozens of headings. Pictures predominate and even the longest texts are kept short. Nuts has a slightly bigger page and its use of the basic kit of parts is more restrained and carefully handled, giving it a fractionally more up-market feel.

One easily overlooked aspect of this kind of design and art direction is the degree to which quite small changes in emphasis within the established conventions can be used to position a title for different readerships. These distinctions are particularly apparent in the extensive TV listings that are a key selling point of both titles. Both magazines structure this material in the same way, listing the five main channels on the left-hand page and featuring the day’s four viewing highlights (from a bloke’s point of view) on the right. Zoo’s pages are more densely packed, with less white space, a heavier use of coloured bars and tint panels, and less clarity in the division of the listings into horizontal time segments. The coarse-grained pages avoid any suggestion of unmanly prettiness, but they are harder to read.

If both magazines are aiming at 18- to 34-year-olds, then the Zoo reader is probably younger on average, more laddish and less settled, while the Nuts reader is older, has a partner, perhaps a young child or two, a better job and a mortgage. Of course, these are assumptions, but they do reflect the calculating way that publishers think about their audiences. Editors of lifestyle magazines like to claim an intimate knowledge of their readers’ attitudes and tastes. Commercial publishers, professing to be doing no more than giving these 'niche' audiences what they want, make large suppositions about what people will be interested in, understand, or accept.

Suggesting that men in this age group have such a narrow range of conventionally masculine concerns and no desire to think is hugely patronising. Here, design becomes another tool – quite as much as the editorial – by which the audience is classified and targeted. If these products then sell, is it because this really is what men want, or because the evolving conventions of the global marketplace have engineered public taste to respond to this crap?

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.