February 7, 2001:
Blanchard '88 finds beer, babes, and juvenile jokes can make a rewarding
by Katherine Hobson
There used to be a sign
hanging in the offices of the Princeton Tiger, the campus humor
magazine: "You can be outrageous and you can be offensive,
but you've got to be funny and you've got to be right."
Keith Blanchard '88,
once the chair of Tiger and now editor-in-chief of the men's magazine
Maxim, still thinks about that sign. He thinks it's pretty wise.
And it's certainly advice that he's had occasion to heed in his
years at Maxim, especially in the eight months since taking the
top editorial job. The magazine is a publishing sensation, zooming
from zero to more than 2 million readers since its 1997 U.S. launch,
and becoming Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year in 1999. Its
secret: a monthly dose of sex, sports, beer, gadgets, clothes, and
fitness - the subjects emblazoned across the top of every cover
- in carefully calibrated proportions. It does not pretend to be
like GQ, or Esquire, or any of the other men's titles. It's for
regular guys. Critics call it simplistic, retrograde, and offensive,
but millions of readers also find it very funny and very right.
The magazine is a publishing
sensation, zooming from zero to more than 2 million readers since
its 1997 U.S. launch, and becoming Advertising Age's Magazine of
the Year in 1999.
On a recent afternoon,
Blanchard and a handful of other Maximites, mostly men but with
a couple of women, are gathered around a conference table in the
magazine's 14th-floor, midtown Manhattan offices. A big sack of
foam packing peanuts is overflowing in the corner, and the walls
are covered with framed enlargements of past covers, featuring lissome
young things in various stages of undress posed next to headlines
like "Sex 911." The meeting's discussion topic: cheap
motels - specifically, how to illustrate an upcoming article about
road-testing national motel chains for their tolerance to the more
nefarious activities young men might conduct there (a hint: the
presence of a sani-strip on the toilet is unlikely to make it into
In the spirit of the
road test, someone suggests a full-color photo of a bathtub filled
with blood, presumably to hint at the gory shenanigans that might
ensue. "I like that," says Blanchard, laughing. After
some discussion of the piece, they move on to another article that
needs illustration, this one about paying less in taxes. Various
unfunny ideas involving IRS agents filter out. Then there's silence.
Someone snorts. Someone else cracks his neck. "How about a
bathtub filled with blood?" Blanchard asks. Everyone laughs.
How did a nice Princeton
grad end up talking about bloody bathtubs for a living? Blanchard
grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, and when it came time to look at
schools decided easily on Princeton. He began as an engineer, but
after two years thought it might not be for him. "I was getting
As in English and Bs, B-minuses, and a C in engineering," he
says. He switched to English, focusing on classical English literature
and writing his thesis on Old English riddles. But his sensibilities
weren't always in line with the department's. "The PC [politically
correct] movement was just blooming," he remembers. "I
took [English professor] Elaine Showalter's course and wrote a paper
on horror movies - I watched a lot of them and discovered that an
equal number of men and women were killed." Blanchard thought
that put a fork in the conventional wisdom that slasher films feature
predominantly female victims. Showalter wasn't convinced by his
thesis, he recalls.
one would ever accuse Tiger of political correctness (a recent headline
reads "Study Shows Gay Jeans Day Unfairly Discriminates Against
Ditzy, Superficial Sorority Girls"). Blanchard started writing
for the magazine as a freshman and became editor-in-chief as a junior
and chair as a senior. He's now copresident of the graduate board.
"It was very low budget and very disorganized, and a lot of
anarchic, chaotic humor comes out of that," he says. "People
there had a lot of fun hanging out with each other." After
graduation, he took the only logical step for a Tiger chairman:
He started writing for teenage girl bible Young Miss, where he says
he was the "token male."
A string of similar full-time
and freelance gigs followed, at publications like Bride's, Marie
Claire, and Cosmopolitan. All of that experience plumbing the depths
of strapless bras and cellulite eradication was good for something:
"It taught me how to write for an audience rather than writing
for myself," says Blanchard. For a freelance writer or editor,
that's essential. But by 1996, "I was hitting the ceiling,"
he says. "I was faced with the decision to choose editorial
or choose writing." While being a freelance writer had its
advantages - "you can work from home and never wear pants,"
he says - he felt he lost control of his work and often saw in the
published piece a very different version of what he submitted. On
the other hand, working as an editor would lock him into longish
magazine hours, with little pay (at least, he notes, compared to
Princeton classmates working as investment bankers and management
consultants). Besides, "you'd always wonder if you could make
it as a writer," he says.
Then, while he was still
at Marie Claire, an editor showed Blanchard the original British
Maxim, one of the many so-called lad magazines that had found wild
popularity in the U.K. It was love at first sight. "It turned
conventional magazine publishing on its head," he says. "It
comes across as being by readers for readers, while conventional
magazine wisdom is that people want to be told what to wear and
what to like." Blanchard joined Maxim in 1996, and the U.S.
magazine launched in April 1997. It was an immediate success. There
were 175,000 debut issues distributed. Current circulation: 2.6
million and climbing (its rate base, or the number of readers guaranteed
to advertisers, is 2.2 million). Along the way, other Tiger magazine
alums joined the team: Charles Coxe '97 began as an editorial assistant
after graduation and is now senior associate editor, while Dave
Itzkoff '98 is an associate editor. Bret Watson '82 is the deputy
editor of Maxim's spinoff for younger readers, Stuff, while other
alums are frequent freelance contributors.
Meantime, Maxim was cycling
through editors - three since the launch. When the latest, Mike
Soutar, said in June he would leave to return to England, Blanchard
was named editor-in-chief. "When they announced that it was
Keith, everyone was absolutely elated," says Itzkoff. "It
was nice to see them reward someone who'd been with the magazine
from day one."
Coxe agrees. "He's
such an engaging person, and has such a sense of humor that really
comes out in day-to-day interactions. Everyone from the higher-ups
to a freelancer who's only here for a day says how friendly he is."
Blanchard oversees the
action from a cubicle splat in the middle of the editorial space
in Maxim's offices, within easy reach of staffers. Sometimes too
easy. Coxe recently hid 26 pieces of sushi in Blanchard's desk while
he was gone, letting them slowly rot. Coxe revealed the source of
the stench in a piece of editorial copy that eventually made it
into Blanchard's editor's note. Irreverence rules. "Back when
I was doing
Tiger I never thought
I could translate that into a
real job," says Coxe.
Blanchard says the magazine
won't radically change on his watch, though there's room to get
rid of what he saw as a hint of staleness. Covers are becoming less
formulaic - i.e., the babe on the front shows up in a different
spot every month, and the colors change more frequently. And editorially,
he says, "We should be surprising the reader at every turn
- anything could be lying in wait behind the next page." While
Blanchard concedes the magazine has, in the past, relied too heavily
on market testing, it's clear that the magazine's content will never
be left solely to the whims of the editors. A research firm still
runs every issue by a panel of first-time readers, who rate every
piece on a scale of one to five. Blanchard says that testing ensures
that Maxim reflects its readers' tastes and is more affirmational
- Hey! You're a guy and you're okay! - than aspirational - Hey!
To be a real man, you've got to buy this $2,000 leather briefcase
and get rid of that gut!
That philosophy is pretty
much absent in magazine land; women's magazines like Cosmopolitan
and Harper's Bazaar, for example, wouldn't sell many advertisements
if they told readers how gorgeous and stylish they already were.
In the men's arena, GQ and Esquire also have a reputation for being
more upscale and dictatorial. (Icon, a men's magazine with a more
intellectual slant that was started by Dave Getson '94, ceased publication
early last year.) "We are not trying to get that urban hipster
mystique," says Blanchard.
Instead, they try to
be a trusted friend, a place for guys to get some good laughs and
good information. "One of the realities of modern life is that
men are required to know a lot more," says Blanchard. "My
father didn't know where the diapers were kept. My grandfather didn't
have to be a good husband." The rules have changed. "Guys,
who notoriously don't talk to each other, have to know all this
stuff." Hence, the focus on service pieces - how to do things
better, even if many of them involve beer. "Guys have a sense
of relief when they get to Maxim. When there's something new and
we're explaining it, we do it in a way to say, 'Hey, we'd never
heard of this either,' " he says.
Now Maxim's ad rate is
higher than either GQ's or Esquire's, while an independent study
found Maxim's readers are older, more likely to be college-educated,
and more affluent than GQ's. Blanchard sees that as a triumph of
the Maxim way. "I believe very firmly that guys my age would
much rather read about things that affect their daily lives - sex,
sports, gadgets - than 5,000-word puff pieces on actors who think
they're philosophers, or whatever," he says.
Critics see Maxim somewhat
differently, as a symbol of the dumbing down of the American male.
They say the magazine depressingly treats men as adolescents, with
pieces like "the 25 greatest sex scenes ever filmed" and
the full-color spreads of women in the almost-altogether (Maxim
does not print nude photos). The humor can be juvenile; a one-page
piece imagining a female presidency shows a fake headline proclaiming
"28 Days Later, It's War in Chechnya Again." "These
kinds of jokes have been around forever and ever," says Itzkoff.
"If you've ever read any ancient Greek literature - the biggest
laugh in Lysistrata comes when the Spartan soldier walks out with
an eight-foot phallus."
Tucked among the articles
on how to stop your girlfriend from nagging and the slobbering paeans
to the newest Victoria's Secret model, there are investigative pieces,
too, which Blanchard calls "islands of seriousness." A
recent issue featured a multipage exclusive on the last hours of
the doomed Russian submarine, the Kursk. A previous article looked
at police corruption in Los Angeles.
But make no mistake;
Maxim is happy with its beer-and-babes focus. "If GQ wants
to cover 'The Golden Age of Design' and $1,500 ties, that's their
business," says Blanchard. "We're more interested in showing
you how to cheat on your taxes, be
better in bed, and build
a working flame-thrower
out of a cigarette lighter and a can of Binaca. If that's wrong,
I don't want to be
Katherine Hobson '94
covers business issues for U.S News and World Report.