Don't talk dirty to me

Cosmo and Glamour banish sex from their cover lines.

Published March 20, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

In the January issue of Hearst Magazines' Cosmopolitan, the editors brought back the pruriently perennial "Bedside Astrologer," which promised to be "Your 365-Day Guide to Love, Passion, Success, Money ..." It was almost exactly the same as the previous year's intro, except that in January 2000 the astrologer offered advice on "men, sex, money and more." What's changed? When it comes to the word "sex" and some of its more risqué iterations, girlfriend's got a big ol' case of lockjaw.

Don't pull up to the checkout line looking for "Sex Tricks He's Never Seen Before: The outrageous 'rock' technique and 21 other moves that will make his thighs go up in flames" (free instruction cards included). You also won't find cover lines like "Supersize Your Sex Life: Take home 10 tasty tips from the world's lustiest lovers. Trust us, he'll never get his fill of you." And forget about seeing come-ons like "The Bedroom Trick That Will Blow Him Away (All you need is a hair scrunchie)." Instead, there are tips to "Make Him Crave You" and "Turn Him On Like Crazy" and for finding "Deeper, Sweeter Love."

This newfound primness is going around. Condé Nast Publications' Glamour -- edited by former Cosmo editor and "mother of all damp cover lines" Bonnie Fuller -- is proceeding delicately as well. Last February, it was all right there for the grabbing: "Let's Talk About Sex -- 23 Erotic Ways to Make Sex With Him Sweeter" and the clinically salacious "Sex and Size: Is He Too Big? Are You? How to Maximize Your Pleasure Match." This year, it's the wan "Delicious Details: Men on Their Biggest Turn-On Secrets, PLUS How to Misbehave to Make Horizontal Even Hotter." Horizontal? In this pristine new world, "sexy" is fine, "sexiest" can still get a ride, but "sex" -- as a word connoting the nasty -- is out. True, it's degrees of difference, but that's what separates bloomers from flame-red thong underwear.

Over the last six months, the two magazines -- which had been in an arms race over cover lines that had all the linguistic subtlety of a gynecological exam -- have defaulted to "Whoa Baby" romance novel motifs. Naked Kama Sutra tantric sex is now under the covers while orgasms have been banished to the magazine's boudoir. Instead, "Be an Amazing Kisser" gets Cosmo's G spot of cover positions (the upper left corner). Even the feisty Jane magazine decided to quit making throaty noises on its cover midway through last year. What gives here? Have the impulses of women magazine buyers suddenly become more chaste?

Not likely. When publishers change their behavior, it's a safe bet that common sense, or common standards of decency, isn't on the table -- money is. Fuller, first at Cosmo and then at Glamour, proved she could move magazines with can't-resist cover lines offering randy advice about "His & Her Pleasure Triggers" and "Tricks for Outstanding Orgasms." Single-copy sales went up 8.8 percent in her first full year as editor in 1999 at a time when most magazines were hurting bad at the newsstand. And Cosmo stayed very hot, trumpeting "Sex-clusives" and "His Secret Sex Spots" to keep up with its former editor.

But all the hyperbole left both magazines with very little room to work. Once you're over the top, what's next? "I think that beyond the 'ick' factor, there is a boredom factor," says Elizabeth Crow, editorial director of Rodale's Women's Health Group, a former CEO at Gruner + Jahr USA and a former editor in chief of Mademoiselle. "Once you've found out how to supersize your sex life four different ways, the fifth is not all that interesting."

Ennui has set in at the newsstand. Cosmo's newsstand sales were off 9.9 percent for the second half of 2000 compared with the same period in 1999, with the magazine losing almost 200,000 single-copy sales. Sell-through, a measure of how many of the magazines on the stand actually get purchased, dropped from 67 percent to 65 percent in 2000. Glamour was down 10.9 percent for the same period, with sell-through off a percentage point as well. Eroding single-copy sales can hamper some titles, but it's a killer for supermarket behemoths like Cosmo and Glamour. Cosmo currently sells 1.8 million of its 2.6 million paid copies on the newsstand, while Glamour retails half a million of its 2.1 million circulation.

There may be another factor cutting into these magazines' newsstand sales and prompting the more demure come-ons -- insistent pressure from interest groups. In the past two years, several supermarket chains, including Kroger's and Big Y, have put Cosmo, and in some cases Glamour, behind opaque blinders that obscure everything except the name of the title. Last month, Giant Food Inc. joined the crusade and obscured the cover of Cosmo. "We have had complaints for some time that people don't consider these magazines appropriate for display at the checkout counter and we thought putting the blinders up seemed like a good opportunity to address concerns while still continuing to offer the publication for sale," says Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant.

Groups like the American Decency Association and Morality in Media have suggested for years that the presence of bottomless cleavage and come-hither cover language was rending the fabric of American culture. And the retailers, after hearing their concerns -- and those of random customers who don't like explaining the word "foreplay" to a 4-year-old -- have covered the magazines up or pushed them into the back of the store. According to the Web site of the American Decency Association, over two dozen supermarket chains have agreed to alter the display of the magazines. And as anybody can tell you, putting the cover lines of a women's magazine out of sight is a great way to deprive them of oxygen.

"There's been a bit of shift, but it doesn't satisfy us," says Bill Johnson, president of the American Decency Association. "The checkout counter should be a safe haven ... somebody has to speak out guarding the hearts and minds of our young ladies."

You'd think that big, bodacious titles like Cosmo would be able to throw their hips around a bit, but given the general mayhem at the newsstand -- the disintegrating distribution chain and wholesaler consolidation -- it's not a great time to get in a cat fight with retailers.

"I think that in every regard, retailers have more leverage than they have ever had with magazines," says Chip Block, a Ziff Davis Media publishing strategist.

Robert Castardi of Curtis Circulation still isn't thrilled to see some of his biggest sellers messing with tried-and-true formulas. "I am concerned about compromising editorial or cover lines to satisfy the concerns of the retailer if it is suggested by anything other than the consumer," he says, "because in the long run, it's the consumer that we are trying attract."

It's not as if the Glazmo niche has changed its editorial focus in fundamental ways. The March issue of Cosmo suggests "My Boyfriend's Clueless About My Three Secret Lovers." But there probably won't be any more "Supersize Your Sex Life" as there was last March. But when you're talking about formulas that have been endlessly tested and market proven, even a little tweaking can create a lot of mayhem. (In 1999, the word "sex" appeared in 10 out of 12 upper-left-corner headlines in Cosmo.)

In spite of the fact that the linguistic disarmament is an observable fact -- it's sitting there in plain sight at most checkout lines -- corporate and editorial types at both Hearst and Condé Nast all seemed suddenly chaste and unapproachable when called about the change in cover nomenclature. They prefer to hide in the skirts of the Magazine Publishers Association, proffering a statement it gave Inside in the summer about the importance of free speech and editorial integrity. (Glamour's got a great reason to keep its head down. It's gotten covered up in some of the grocery stores, but Cosmo remains the hottie that most decency groups, like the American Decency Association and Morality in Media, would like to stone to death.)

In keeping with the general candor of her publication, only Jane Pratt, editor in chief of Fairchild Publications' Jane, was willing to take a call. She was more than happy to report that halfway through 2000, the magazine's editors quit talking dirty, coverspeak-wise.

"There's no question that we have toned down the cover lines," Pratt says. In the wake of the sale in 1999 of the magazine from the image-conscious Walt Disney Co. to Advance Communications, which owns Fairchild and Condé Nast, Pratt said that she decided to try on some sexier cover dresses. So last March brought "The Great Vibrator Hum-Off," while "How to operate his equipment better than he can" showed up on the June/July cover.

"We were given the opportunity to push things more, so we did," says Pratt. But "the readers didn't like it and told us so. They thought it was lowbrow, something that they wouldn't be proud of having out on the coffee table." Pratt also acknowledges that "the advertisers were relieved to see us go back to less salacious cover lines."

Pratt says reining in some of the sexual frankness would have been more difficult "if our newsstand numbers doubled, but they didn't." So, the "Horny? Quick solution on page 94" that made a turn in the May 2000 issue won't be coming back for any encores. And Pratt isn't concerned about getting tarred with the same brush that frantic decency groups are slinging at many magazines in the women's space, including middle-of-the-road efforts like Redbook.

"I have never heard it suggested that some of these groups are out to ban the whole genre," she says. But if a few of the magazines coveting that young woman reader get pushed out of the supermarket line, Pratt, and undoubtedly quite a few others, stand ready to take their place. "To be honest, I'm very competitive, so I thought if they move some of those other magazines to the back of the store, we might get to move up front."

By David Carr

David Carr is editor of Washington City Paper, an alternative newspaper owned by the Chicago Reader, which has competed with Leonard Stern to buy weekly newspapers. He has no stock options that he is aware of.

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