It worked for Maxim. Even the more grown-up GQ and Esquire gave it a shot this year. So, which magazine was next to put a glinty-eyed, half-clad babe on its cover? The Economist? No - or at least, not yet. The honor actually goes to one-year-old Travel & Leisure Golf.
That's right, readers of the magazine's September/October issue not only get to read about teeing off with tennis champ Pete Sampras, but also are invited to ogle Heidi Klum in tiny golf shorts, holding a putter between her legs. "Playing with Heidi," the coverline reads. "The swimsuit supermodel as you've never seen her before - in your pants!"
Huh? On the cover of a magazine that counts as its average reader a 52-year-old man who plays 38 rounds of golf per year? Okay, so there's a trend toward racy covers on men's magazines and a return to a bad-boy ideal in ads for everything from whiskey to cologne. But it's usually young men being targeted. Can such an approach possibly work for middle-aged guys, let alone those who consider golf a prime component of their lifestyle? Surely, this must be insanity.
But perhaps there is a method to the madness.
First of all, T&L Golf - an off-shoot of Travel & Leisure and the child of a partnership between Time Inc. and American Express Publishing - is not your typical golf magazine. It does not feature six-step diagrams to a better swing, nor does it showcase balding men in plaid slacks. Rather, T&L Golf contains glossy photo spreads of ritzy golf courses, cover stories on celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Bryant Gumbel, and sections touting "properties for the well-heeled, the rather wealthy, and the bottomless-pocket set." Top advertisers are tourist destinations like Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands, and spots for swank brands like BMW, Montblanc, and Rolex abound. (Did I forget to mention that the median household income of that 52-year-old reader is about $161,000?)
In other words, the magazine is positioning itself a step - make that a big step - away from its less sophisticated cohorts in the burgeoning world of golf magazines.
"We are a lifestyle magazine that appeals to avid golfers," says Robert Gregory, the magazine's publisher. "Do we have a lot of affluent older men as readers? Yes. But we think there are people within that demographic who don't have the traditional old, stuffy attitude."
With this in mind, Gregory has steered the magazine toward a look and a style designed to "shake things up a bit," he says. In fact, Heidi is not T&L Golf's first controversial cover. Last November, for example, the magazine featured Fidel Castro and Che Guevara playing a round. A Bill Murray cover is in the planning stages - for a tribute to the irreverent 1980 movie Caddyshack, in which the comedian played a deranged groundskeeper.
Clearly something is working because the magazine's rate base has grown from 200,000 in 1998 to 300,000 in the first six months of this year. Ad pages have grown, too, closing the first half of the year at almost 244 pages - an increase of about 127 percent from the year before, according to the Magazine Publishers of America.
Most of the growth has come from paid subscriptions, however, and only a slim percentage from newsstand sales. Last year there were 75,000 paid subscribers, a number that skyrocketed to 175,000 in the period between January and June of this year. In that same time period, newsstand sales only grew from 25,000 to 30,000. (T&L Golf also gets sent to American Express' highest-spending traveler and golf cardholders.)
While the newsstand numbers aren't necessarily troubling, they are low, and part of the reason for the sock-it-to-you covers is to boost single-copy sales.
The other big reason is the age of the readers they're not getting. T&L Golf earned its unusually wealthy reader base by turning to an older crowd, but Gregory would like to see the median age drop into the mid-40s. (Readers of magazines like Golf Digest, Golf World, and Golf Magazine tend to be in that age bracket, according to Mediamark Research.) Even so, the fortysomething golfer is no spring chicken. The other magazines experimenting with more risquA covers all attract a much younger demographic. The median age for Maxim's male reader, for example, is 30. Will a 45-year-old guy be lured by a girlie picture and a racy cover line? And also important to ask, will T&L Golf alienate those male readers with whom it has already found success?
"Boys will be boys" was the general sentiment among marketers and magazine consultants. As Jon Berry, editorial director of Roper Starch Worldwide, points out, the older half of this group is part of the Rat Pack generation - men now in their 50s who grew up with Playboy, martinis, and Frank Sinatra as a role model. They may have been keeping their un-P.C. tendencies to themselves all these years, but that doesn't mean they won't be psyched to find themselves in a climate where testosterone once again rules.
As for their younger counterparts - the edge of the boomer iceberg - they may have come of age during the second wave, but the marketers and magazine consultants with whom I spoke could think of few reasons they wouldn't be pleased to find Heidi staring up at them with that "tee-it-up" look in her eyes. And no one doubted that new eyes would be drawn to her cover at the newsstand.
Being pleased, however, isn't the same thing as being converted. Even if they like it, will middle-aged men be embarrassed to be associated with something so blatantly sexual, wonders Ralph Perricelli, a partner at Magazine Communications Consultants.
Of concern to Berry was this: Lots of boomers, young and old, no matter how randy they are in their hearts, have something to contend with that many younger men don't - wives and kids at home, to whom they may not want to bring Heidi.
"I'm over 50 and I'd like [such a cover]," says Howard Eisenberg, chief executive of Publishing Management Services. "But if I'd buy it is another question."
And let's not forget that, thanks to its emphasis on travel and lifestyle, T&L Golf boasts a high female readership for a golf magazine - 39 percent of its readers are women, compared with 20 percent of Golf Digest's. Will Heidi turn these women off? Possibly, Gregory acknowledges. But the rewards of winning over new members of its target demographic group are worth the risk of losing a few readers not in the target group, he figures.
"Anytime you push the envelope, you irritate someone," he observes. And really, it's hard to imagine that the sight of Heidi and her putter will irritate wealthy golf enthusiasts - men or women - more than the sight of Fidel Castro.