Does Sex Still Sell?

Article excerpt

Byline: Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

From the Sports Illustrated swimsuit special - an annual rite for American men - to Cosmopolitan's annual sex survey, the formula has been proven over and over. The barely clad swimsuit model on the SI cover generates sales of $4.8 million and close to 59 million readers, compared with 3.25 million copies and 21 million readers for the average SI cover with a fully clad male athlete. This past August's Cosmo sex poll cover sold 2.3 million copies with an 82 percent sell-through, compared with its average 1.7 million copies and 74 percent sell-through.

But some magazine editors now question whether the raunchier, more explicit treatment of sex in mainstream magazines has lost its ability to shock. Seven years ago, Bonnie Fuller caused a stir when she published the headline "Get Moregasmic" on the cover of Cosmo - the first time any form of the "O" word made the cover. In the intervening years dozens of mainstream magazines have followed, adding more nudity, naughtier headlines and, sometimes, graphic sex talk.

In those same years, the culture has become thoroughly drenched with sexual material. Outright pornography is just a mouse click away and near-porn pours across TV screens, billboards and magazine pages. Sex and the City made talk of vibrators seem like ordinary fare. A beautiful hotel heiress, who once might have been doing deb parties, is seen doing something entirely different in a homemade porn video that circulates on the Web.

Now, however, there are signs that the highly charged packaging of sex is starting to feel old. Maxim, which became a men's mag phenom by splashing pouty demi-celebrities on its cover, is slowing down. Newsstand circulation in the second half of last year dropped 14.6 percent. Bright pink covers dominated by the words "hot" and "sexy" no longer catch the female eye. The openly sexual girl talk that has become so commonplace in women's magazines has also become predictable. Abercrombie & Fitch folded its quarterly catalog, which it had cranked out for years despite protests over its scantily clad models and bawdy sex advice.

"Sexual imagery and headlines may not be as effective as before because of "habituation," says Tom Reichert, an advertising professor at the University of Alabama and author of The Erotic History of Advertising. "In pornography research it means that, over time, repeated exposure to common forms of sexual content require more varied sexual information to achieve the same level of excitement. Perhaps magazines have pushed it as far as it could go in today's climate."

Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour sees a growing backlash among her readers too. "They're a little bored by the blatant sex talk," she says. Leive says that a 2003 issue with a cover line "Eleven Sex Moves that Men Wish We Would Do," did not sell as well as expected. The February 2004 issue, with the teasing cover line "What He's Really Thinking When You ..." did much better.

Leive doubts that the reaction is against sex itself - just the formulaic presentation of the topic. "I don't think women are more prudish or conservative," she says. "Some of those lines are just tapped out. If readers see a cover line that is too revealing or explicit, they'll say that looks too much like Maxim."

As a marketing concept, the more explicit material that crept into mainstream magazines over the past few years has lost its sizzle. "It's going out of style," declares Atoosa Rubenstein, whose current mission is to return Seventeen magazine to its more wholesome roots. When she arrived, she says, readers had been complaining that the magazine had gotten "too slutty."

Rubenstein sees it as a major change in the attitude of teen girls. When she ran CosmoGIRL! from 1999 to 2003 "it was Britney Spears, her belly button and illicit lyrics like 'Hit me, baby, one more time,'" she says. "Now Jessica Simpson, who was a virgin until her wedding day, kills on the newsstands. …