Playboy, Maxim square off online

In a bar brawl that has spilled online, the martini set is squaring off against the beer guzzlers.

Two leading men's magazine publishers, Playboy Enterprises and Dennis Publishing, owner of the hot men's magazine Maxim, are separately preparing what they hope will be the first men's lifestyle portal. Encompassing the obvious categories - sex and sports - along with less racy pursuits such as music and food, both companies hope their site will win out as the premier Web destination for the 18-to-35 year-old testosterone set.

In many ways, the niche is an obvious one: while there's no shortage of lifestyle sites targeting women, from iVillage to Oxygen Media, the general-interest men's market has largely been passed over. Aside from sports-fan sites such as ESPN.com and SportsLine, and a plethora of X-rated porn sites, "There are no great places for guys on the Web to go," says Steven Kotok, a consultant on Maxim's planned site. "We want to create a home for men, a place where guys can go to laugh, a place where the whole world is viewed through the Maxim lens."

Playboy is thinking the same thing. "We want to be the preeminent destination for guys," says Paul Kallis, Playboy's acting president of online operations. "I would never position us as being just about sex."

But the companies face obstacles as they go where no man has gone before: For one, some mainstream advertisers have been wary of any site tinged with sex. Also, it's unclear whether men want a general-interest site.

Still, that hasn't stopped Maxim from investing over $US1 million toward the relaunch of its Web site, according to executives working on the project. The site, set to debut in January or February, essentially will put a more Gen X spin on competitor Hugh Hefner's formula of lifestyle content, advice and scantily clad women. At the helm is Tom Livaccari, cofounder of the seminal Web zine, Word.

Playboy has a head start. Its Web site debuted in 1995; the company is now unveiling an overhauled site as part of a strategy to move beyond soft-core nude photos. To do this, the company is expanding from its smoking-jacket reputation to include more sports, gambling, music and movies, along with more coverage of campus life.

To be sure, Playboy and Maxim target slightly different markets. Maxim, with its "Sex, sports, beer, gadgets" tagline, has trained its crosshairs on the frat-boy crowd, while the 45-year-old Playboy appeals to a more upscale and affluent men's market. And unlike Playboy, Maxim doesn't contain full-frontal nudity -- though it doesn't shy away from any opportunity to show some cleavage. "Maxim is fairly downmarket in attitude and point of view. It does not have as strong a brand name," says Christie Hefner, who took the role of CEO of Playboy Enterprises from her father in 1988.

But on newsstands, the two companies have been fighting it out ever since Maxim helped to redefine the men's magazine category. First launched in April 1997, Maxim snuck up on GQ, Details and Esquire, and proceeded to leapfrog those titles; circulation stood at 1.15 million for the first half of 1999, compared to GQ's 707,776, Esquire's 680,573, and Details' 558,683 readers, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation figures.

Maxim's circulation is barely over a third of Playboy's 3.2 million subscribers. But competitors say Playboy, which captured the zeitgeist of the swinging '60s and '70s, has lagged in recent years in the face of the wide availability of online pornography on the one end and hot, young men's lifestyle magazines - like Maxim - on the other.

What's more, while Playboy's trademark pictures have driven millions of men to the site, the nudity has made advertisers wary, says John Masterton, media group editor at Media Industry Newsletter, a weekly newsletter published in New York. "It has been a tough hurdle for advertisers," says Masterton, who notes that Playboy magazine has had trouble attracting domestic auto ads, for example, because conservative companies like General Motors tend to avoid nudity, even if it is considered artistic, for fear of estranging customers.

Hefner says Playboy is aiming to lure more advertisers from the magazine to the Web site as part of the overall repositioning of the product. Earlier this month, the company struck a partnership with M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator magazines, to add content to the Playboy site. "We didn't count on just having a brand name to succeed," says Hefner. "We are constantly adding value to the site with new content, new deals and more to be offered to our universe of guys."

Hefner's strategy may be paying off. In 1998, Playboy.com generated $7.1 million from advertising, sales of adult videos and other items, and from paid subscriptions to its premium site Playboy Cyber Club. This year, revenue is expected to top $14 million, which again is expected to double by the end of 2000. Hefner hints that number could go higher still.

Although Maxim has been slow to get on the Web, the magazine's owners have had their hands in digital entertainment. In 1994, Dennis Interactive, the company's digital arm, bought Blender, one of the first CD-ROM magazines (Blender was unplugged when sales failed to take off).

The Maxim site hopes to succeed by becoming a "Don't Panic Button" for guiding men through the tribulations of modern life -- as Dennis Publishing's Creative Director Keith Blanchard describes it -- with advice columns and content. "Maxim is going to help you solve whatever problems there are in your life," Blanchard says.

That's assuming that men log on to the site in the first place. Despite the rush by Playboy and Maxim to carve a new niche for men, there's no guarantee that guys will respond. As Blanchard acknowledges, men have traditionally identified foremost with a specific need or hobby. "Men considered themselves sports fans, or porn fans first, then as men second." Getting them to think otherwise, he says, "is a tough challenge."

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