The thinking man's sneery frat-boy magazine.

How popular culture gets popular.
July 2 2002 11:42 AM

FHM

The thinking man's sneery frat-boy magazine.

FHM: A hot mag
FHM: A hot mag

The innumerable stories about the hiring of Ed Needham as Rolling Stone's new top editor all quoted the same intriguing factoid: The magazine that Needham is leaving— FHM, which stands for For Him Magazine—is the fastest-growing in the United States. Its paid circulation rose to 844,127 in 2001, an increase of 63.6 percent. Another gauge of a magazine's health is the number of ad pages it's selling, and for the first half of the year FHM's ad pages have been up more than 60 percent. Why?

One shorthand answer is that FHM is a variation on Maxim, which is itself a variation on British "laddie" magazines that revel in an unapologetic beer-and-babes aesthetic. The attraction of this genre is not hard to fathom. And Maxim and FHM are clones to a degree that's unusual in a pair of magazines that are supposed to be rivals. It doesn't seem nearly so hard to tell the difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and ESPN: the Magazine or Fortune and Forbes.

But FHM is growing faster than its laddie peers, not to mention every other magazine on the newsstand. What's it doing right?

Magazines are like purebred dogs: To decide whether a given title "works," you have to set aside personal prejudices. Dog-show judges don't pick a grand champion on the basis of whether they prefer poodles to chow chows. They evaluate each beast against the standards of the breed and name a winner based on which one comes closest to meeting that standard perfectly. And apparently a fast-growing number of readers think FHM is doing a bang-up job meeting the standards of its breed, such as they are.

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To get a sense of FHM, imagine a mix of Viagra, Ritalin, and Reader's Digest. The visual Viagra is the most obvious thing: photos of as many curvy young women, wearing as little clothing, as possible. Yes, there have always been girlie magazines, but as Samir " Mr. Magazine" Husni notes, the newer titles dodge the "guilt feeling" that keep some men from buying Playboy and so on—"always afraid the girlfriend or wife will be mad at you." Fair enough, although I suspect that many readers of FHM are more worried about mom finding those dirty magazines and would probably chuck the whole lot if an actual girlfriend were a possibility.

A quick read
A quick read

Next is the Ritalin factor. FHM is a magazine for someone who has trouble concentrating for more than a minute or so. Needham has talked about the need for a lot of "entry points" in a magazine, a choice of wording I'm sure would cause no end of twitchy giggling among FHM subscribers. But that's jargon for places on a given page where a reader can instantly latch onto something. Q and A's are better than articles, because you can pick and choose what blocks of text to read. Lists are good, too. FHM also throws in free-floating, one-sentence boxes labeled "Fast Fact." A typical front-of-the-book page from the June issue gives a good sense of what Needham is talking about: If you are looking for six to eight seconds of reading diversion, you will find it here.

Like Reader's Digest, FHM is designed not so much for reading as grazing. And like Reader's Digest, FHM gets a lot of material directly from readers. FHM offers $200 for the best "barroom joke" of the month and the best letter to the editor. It offers $20 if you catch a mistake, asks you to send in snapshots that have been "hijacked" by a stranger poking his head in the frame, and solicits attractive young women to taunt ex-boyfriends by posing for half-naked photos under the headline "It's Your Ex-Girlfriend!"

Maxim does similar stuff, but here, finally, is the difference: FHM's gimmicks are ever so slightly more clever. The ex-boyfriend humiliation feature is certainly mean-spirited and nasty enough to be in Maxim, but it's not. Or take FHM's habit of attacking in print the stupidest letter to the editor every month and demanding $20 from the hapless reader. FHM also tilts a little more toward the Jackass model of entertainment; a recent feature had a writer pour different sorts of shampoo in his eyes and rate the burning pain on a scale of 1 to 10.

I can't say I quite enjoyed any of the examples I've just given, but I think they set a mildly more ambitious standard for the breed. Although it still hasn't quite caught up with Maxim's circulation, maybe FHM has found a niche as the thinking man's sneery frat-boy magazine. Or maybe that's overstating things. But note that some of the better FHM gimmicks—like the letter-bashing and the assault on ex-boyfriends and photo-crashers—all involve roundly slamming guys who either are, or who seem quite a bit like, the very people who read the magazine. Maybe this points to the way to pick out the "thinker" in any pair of sneering frat-boys: Just suss out which one is showing a glimmer of self-hatred. That's your winner.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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