Girlie mags must stay abreast of the net

If sex sells, then the internet has become the primary place to purchase it. But the growth of online adult content is likely to mark the end of an iconic, if widely reviled, cultural phenomenon: the ‘girlie magazine’.Like the first drag on a cigarette or kiss at the school disco, buying a porn mag from the corner shop became a rite of passage for a generation of teenage boys. The advent of the internet changed all that, making pornography more widely available, but multi-million pound ‘adult’ empires that have been slow to embrace the online world face an uncertain future.

Even when the internet was in its infancy, observers predicted online profits would come from ‘pills, porn and poker’. A decade or so later, that prophecy has proved remarkably true. The adult internet industry generates over £1 trillion of revenue a year, accounting for 13 per cent of total online turnover, making it the most lucrative internet business.

The rapid adoption of new technology coincided with a relaxation in the regulations surrounding pornography.

In America alone, more than $5 billion a year is spent on hardcore DVDs. Some commentators claim the speed with which consumers dumped VCRs for DVD players – at a far faster rate than previous moves from old to new formats – owed much to pornography.

While thousands of internet entrepreneurs have built profitable businesses charging monthly subscription fees for pornography, some of the giant publishing empires have been slow to adapt.

Last month, Penthouse, the US title set up to compete with Playboy, filed for bankruptcy protection. Although its financial problems owed much to the extravagant lifestyle of founder Bob Guccione and an ill-conceived casino investment, the business had been slow to move its content online.

Like other print media, adult publishers need to invest huge sums to ensure their content is available on a range of platforms. Jolyon Barker, media partner at accountant Deloitte, says: ‘A key challenge for the wider publishing industry is to transform its culture from being print-oriented to becoming multi-media brands. While print will remain important for many years to come, it will no longer be the dominant channel to market.

‘In some cases, it may even become the “window display” that drives consumers to paid-for content … In future, previously paid-for print copy may literally become a [free] flyer driving users to paid-for television or internet sites.’

Playboy, the world’s best-known adult brand, has survived by reacting quickly to technological change – building a portfolio of pay-TV channels and filming photo shoots for distribution on DVD. The magazine, which still has a respectable circulation in dozens of countries worldwide, acts as a marketing tool for other products in its multi-billion adult empire.

‘It is no longer sustainable for publishing companies to create for print, then copy and paste into a web channel,’ says Barker. ‘The publishing houses that succeed will be those that can apply the brand value of their titles over a range of media, with print and online among the most important, but with radio and television also [crucial].’

Express Newspaper’s owner Richard Desmond, whose Northern & Shell magazine group was one of the UK’s largest adult publishers, was also quick to absorb the lessons of the multi-media age. He chose to shed his adult magazine titles after a long search for a buyer, but retained his profitable TV channels, which include The Fantasy Channel and the Red Hot brands.

The digital revolution has only just begun, and the latest generation of internet-enabled mobile phones will also use porn to drive revenues. Mobile operators have accepted that one of the few ways of recouping the huge sums spent on their 3G licenses is by supplying pornography. (The industry is predicting $4bn revenues annually from this.)

In the meantime, the steady increase in internet usage represents the greatest threat, or opportunity, for purveyors of adult content. According to US consultancy Pew Internet, almost all of today’s young people have access to the internet. In the US, 87 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds were using the internet in 2004, up from 73 per cent in 2000. The frequency of teens’ online usage has also risen by 51 per cent since then, and the number of teens who say they use the internet daily is up from 42 per cent in 2000.

But while hardcore pornography has found a natural home online, it is unlikely to disappear from newsagents. Much of the adult content has simply migrated from the top shelf to the bottom in the form of ‘lads mags’ like Loaded and Maxim. They contain acres of naked female flesh, and are often sold with free titillating, soft-porn DVDs mounted on their covers. Unlike their predecessors, they provide a more acceptable soft porn read, with similar content, but none of the stigma attached to top-shelf titles.

Girlie mags haven’t disappeared; they’ve been reborn in a more palatable form.


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