Lad No More: My Escape from Maxim

16 Feb 2015 | 06:04

    I'm so often ashamed of my alma mater that I have deliberately organized my life to avoid hearing any news about it. Still, the occasional piece of Princeton-related gossip manages to slip past my defenses. Take the story currently making the rounds about how the editors of the Nassau Weekly, the campus newspaper at which I once toiled, decided to use their outgoing issue for the purposes of profiling the student body's "Ten Most Beautiful Girls," complete with some mildly racy photography and plenty of utterly banal remarks from America's next generation of country club members. ("Dating is really dead here, or I don't know if it was ever alive," says Ashley, a senior.) You could easily dismiss the whole affair as typical Ivy League shenanigans, but you'd be missing the point: Sometimes it takes a group of intelligent people to create something so stupid.

    But then, who am I to throw stones? I've spent the last two and a half years engaged in an almost identical pursuit?and did it for a living. Up until just recently, I was an editor at Maxim, the most commercially successful and critically reviled entry in a boisterous new field of men's interest publications, the so-called "lad magazines." And for a while I liked the job: I enjoyed the company of my colleagues, got used to my cramped, unadorned office space, worked on a few stories I was genuinely into, even spent quality time with folks like George Lucas and Willie Nelson. (In answer to your next question: Yes.) My parents were sorta proud of me. In public, I was an ardent defender of what I took to be Maxim's anarchic new approach to the men's category, its uniformly easygoing voice and the inclusiveness of its jokey blend of cheesecake pictorials and McNugget-sized articles; I stood up for the magazine against critics in the pages of publications like The New Republic and even New York Press. In my time at Maxim, its paid circulation grew from an already formidable one million issues a month to an even more staggering 2.5 million copies. And let me tell you, I have never found that statistic more dispiriting than I do today.

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    I have seen the light. I have witnessed the secrets of the sausage factory, and I stand here before you to say that, whatever Maxim once was or ever hoped to be, it is currently a magazine that has no ideology. If it were merely a publication that packs its pages with unrealistically retouched photographs, patently invented pillow talk, obvious editorial concessions to advertisers and a pervasively smug attitude, I'd hardly have anything to complain about?that describes three-quarters of the magazines out there. No, somehow all this and less has combined in Maxim to form one of the most slickly cynical products you'll find on a newsstand, a continued testament to the fact that good window-dressing is all that's needed to bring a customer into the shop, even if there's no merchandise to be found inside.

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    Don't judge Maxim's editorial staff harshly. They're a talented young group of mostly genial married guys and a few incredibly tolerant women, and the situation is well beyond their control. Fact is, as of this writing I can't recall having a proper features planning meeting?a time-honored magazine tradition in which editors get together to discuss what worked or didn't work in previous issues and generate new ideas for the future?in months. And why would there be a need for such a meeting when we had The Formula, the magical recipe that has already dictated exactly which articles were to run every single month? You'll never find The Formula engraved on stone tablets or emblazoned on parchment behind bulletproof glass at the Maxim offices, but I assure you we all knew it forward and backwards in our minds. And it goes something like this:

    ?Three (3) babe features comprising pictures of under-dressed starlets of varying degrees of celebrity

    ?One (1) sex feature dispensing bedroom advice, illustrated with more pictures of models

    ?One (1) personal benefit/service feature providing step-by-step guidance for when you find yourself, say, confronted by a terrorist or eager to build a potato cannon from PVC pipe

    ?One (1) true crime/"gritty read" feature that is actually thoroughly researched and reported, and often well-written

    ?And one (1) humor feature comprising even more pictures of women and punchlines that depend on phrases like "man-paste" and "pierc[ed] taco"

    Despite the oft-repeated allegations, I assure you that, to the best of my knowledge, no focus groups were ever consulted in generating story ideas. That would imply we cared about what other people thought.

    Tellingly, the dozens of rejection letters I wrote to aspiring Maxim contributors (they do exist) boiled down to a single sentence: "Your idea doesn't fit any of our existing formats." Because occasional innovations aside, The Formula endures, issue after issue. It's a testament to the magazine's staff that they haven't developed debilitating cases of carpal tunnel syndrome or absolutely lost their minds from editing the same stuff month in and month out. And it's a testament to, well, something, that its audience has yet to get tired of reading it.

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    While so little creativity is expended in preparing the magazine's contents, a comparatively inordinate amount of energy is spent on the cover lines, those seductive ("Voodoo Sex!"), salacious ("Pretzel Sex!"), transparent ("Endless Sex!") enticements that wink at you from the magazine rack like a courtesan in a bordello window, inviting you to come on in and take a look around. Like the rest of Maxim, the cover lines are sometimes laughable ("Lights?Camera?Traction!" announces a story about movie stunts), sometimes lewd ("Tickle Her Pink!" advertises a sex feature) and sometimes just plain lies ("Win Sex with His Fiancee!" in fact promotes a service feature about poker).

    Though they're intended to make you stop in an instant, the rigors of writing them often takes up to a week. In a Rube Goldberg process, all the editors write their own sets of cover lines, then assemble for a meeting or two in which these lines are tried out, argued over and rewritten. Then editors go back to work individually, then more debate, until a satisfactory set of cover lines is produced. Then, at last, they must be approved by Felix Dennis.

    Attention must be paid to the eponymous founder and chairman of Maxim's parent company, Dennis Publishing. For all of his feisty, Falstaffian qualities (I find it hard to imagine you'll ever have a conversation with Si Newhouse in which the words "non-penetrative sex" are uttered), Dennis is shrewd in a land of dudes: In his native England?where Maxim has always been an also-also-ran to Loaded and FHM?magazine subscriptions are extremely rare, and wars of circulation are won and lost entirely at the newsstand. Dennis, the man and the company, won't allow a title to passively compete for eyeballs (and disposable income), and for better and worse he has once again made single-copy sales vital to a magazine's success. He will happily remind you, as he always reminded us, that he writes many of Maxim's cover lines himself?which is sometimes the truth?because above all, he is a man who knows how to get you to buy his product.

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    But what, exactly, is Maxim selling? If the cover did its trick and got you inside its pages, what would you find? We didn't do issue-oriented news features or authoritative first-person narratives, and hadn't published a proper profile in almost a year?all hallmarks of basic magazine journalism. In fact, aside from the monthly true crime feature, we wouldn't run more than 1500 continuous words anywhere, as if our readers might be insulted if we asked them to, y'know, read.

    What we specialized in were headlines whose promises weren't quite fulfilled by the accompanying articles, boxes of text cropped to the point where they couldn't possibly convey any information and, by design, gratuitous girlie pix everywhere, at the rate of one every five or six pages (and still, one of my superiors would routinely complain to me that my pages needed more "eye candy"). Just one ploy after another, each one pleading with you, Forget the page you just looked at?turn to the next one! Like the women depicted in Maxim's photographs, captured right at that boundary between an R-rating and a PG-13, everything seems to be frozen right at the moment of revelation. It's all one big tease, except underneath those frilly undergarments there ain't nothing to show.

    Time was when one of Maxim's numerous detractors would cut us down in the press, and my first instinct (after having a good cry and contemplating graduate school) was always to dismiss it as sour grapes?these people were just jealous that the magazine had achieved so much so quickly. But now, belatedly, I understand the dilemma its success has raised, one that cuts right to the heart of this industry: Is a magazine supposed to engage, enlighten and edify its readers, or is it only intended to distract them as they flip from one advertisement to the next?

    Unfortunately, Maxim doesn't have the time to consider such weighty philosophical issues?it just has to keep selling. After being the lone lad voice for years ("the first into the desert with a beer truck," as Felix Dennis would say), the magazine faces increased competition from a multitude of cheap imitations, as well as an American edition of FHM and a Dennis-owned spinoff, Stuff, which was launched in part to impede FHM's expansion in the States. Do the math: Even with 1.5 million subscribers, to meet a rate base of 2.5 million copies sold?the number Maxim guarantees to its advertisers?it must sell one million of those copies on the newsstand every single month; anything less and the advertisers get refunds or bonus make-good ads. If an issue sells only, say, 700,000 copies on the stands?numbers that almost every magazine this side of Modern Maturity would kill for?it's simply not enough.

    Over time, we learned that the single biggest contributing factor to newsstand sales was a reader's ability to recognize the woman on the cover. But Hollywood being what it is, and Maxim's reputation being what it is, you're just not going to find 12 of those women every year, and you've still got a magazine to sell.

    And that is how one winds up publishing a mean-spirited, mercenary stunt like the abysmal "Greatest City on Earth" story. Perpetrated in Maxim's April 2002 issue, the scheme was in fact hatched the previous summer, as we began work on the December 2001 issue. With plans for Maxim's second-annual Models of the Year package falling apart and no other suitable cover girl on the horizon, a desperate backup plan began to take shape: At great expense to the magazine, we would produce 13 different covers, one for each of the 12 major U.S. markets plus Canada, each variant announcing in a brightly colored burst that we had granted the biggest metropolis in each market?New York, Miami, San Francisco, etc.?the distinction of Greatest City on Earth; to seal the deal, a different feature praising each city would appear in the corresponding issue. The desired effect would be increased newsstand sales and publicity for Maxim in these cities, then we'd all have a good laugh when, over time, the prank (for lack of a better word) was discovered by our readers. But in the wake of Sept. 11, common sense prevailed, however momentarily: The idea of a practical joke that even peripherally involved New York City seemed distasteful, and the whole concept was shelved.

    Within months, though, we would find our backs against the wall in rustling up a cover, and Greatest Cities found its way back onto the lineup for our fifth-anniversary issue. But instead of milking the stunt for weeks or months, our house of cards collapsed in about two days: When the Detroit Free Press took the bait and published a story about the Maxim "honor" (they should have been suspicious that anyone would have something complimentary to say about Detroit), the miracle of the Internet ensured that journalists and consumers nationwide would know about our little ruse. By the time copies of the New York issue began appearing on Philadelphia newsstands, the jig was most definitely up. Publications from the San Francisco Chronicle to The Independent of London to Newsweek were mocking the crass commercialism of the idea; the Los Angeles Times, of all places, ran an editorial declaring the issue "the Worst Single Magazine of the Week" while steadfastly refusing to mention Maxim by name in the piece.

    Most offended of all were our readers, and who can blame them? They had been made the butt of a joke that satirized nothing, entertained no one and was engineered simply to sell more copies of the magazine. Though I and several other colleagues expressed our misgivings about the stunt and the vitriol it had unleashed upon us, Maxim continued in its typical indifference to the outside world. No apology was issued for the backfired prank, no one lost his job and business?strictly business?went on as usual.

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    I would like to believe there is a second school of thought on selling magazines?and just hear me out on this?that says you fill a publication with content that's challenging, that people might want to read, and if it connects with your audience, they'll buy the magazine of their own volition, without having to be tricked into it. I would also like to believe that someday, someone is going to publish an intelligent men's magazine that speaks to today's generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings without pandering to them or making excessive use of the word "dude."

    Sadly, I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon: Maxim's years of success have coincided with a terrible slump, both financial and creative, throughout the magazine industry, and nervous editors have unwisely concluded that the two trends must be linked. The result is that some hoary competing magazines that could all benefit from retooling?a Top 20 list on which Rolling Stone should occupy at least 15 slots?have taken to borrowing elements from Maxim in lieu of properly reconsidering their own purposes. (If you don't believe me, try to remember the last time you saw a photo caption in a magazine that actually identified what was going on in the picture.)

    I wish I had the patience to see how this whole lad phenomenon resolves itself?amazing how this industry can move at light-speed and in slow motion at the same time?but instead I'm just extricating myself from it. And really, what's lost if a few more magazines stumble down Maxim's well-worn path? It will only make audiences that much more hungry, and thankful, for a title that can deliver the goods honestly and intelligently.

    Still, if you happen to be an executive at Time Inc., Hearst or any other media conglomerate rumored to be readying its own entry into the lad market, my advice is don't bother?you'll only further water down what is already a crowded and undifferentiated marketplace. And if you happen to be an aspiring young journalist awed by the news of a recent job opening or two at Maxim, think long and hard before you fire off a copy of your resume.