Thursday, April 10, 2008

49. How Not to Advertise a Comic Book

June 1997: Prog 1048 continues the recent, solid lineup in the Galaxy's Greatest, with everything moving towards their final episodes in the following week's issue. Jason Brashill contributes the cover for this week's Anderson: Psi Division story by Alan Grant and Steve Sampson, and there are two episodes of Judge Dredd as John Wagner gets ready for the climax of "The Hunting Party," with art by David Bircham and by Henry Flint. Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser continue Nikolai Dante, and Pat Mills and Steve Tappin have the penultimate part of Slaine: "The Grail War."

Normally, thanks to participation in fandom, reading interviews and the like, I have the benefit of knowing a little bit about the background to 2000 AD's history as it unfolds. This week, however, we have a subject that I didn't know anything at all about until it was written up in the fabulous secondary source that is David Bishop's Thrill-Power Overload. This is the sordid tale of the two worst advertisements that have ever been seen, anywhere. And to understand them, you have to know what the hell Loaded is.

American readers may recall that for a few years, we had these very tame little girlie mags on the shelves, called Maxim, Stuff and FHM, along with some even tamer contemporaries. Maxim's the only one that survived, and I don't know how long it's got, since The WB no longer exists, and that's got to have dried up the stream of twentysomething Hollywood starlets to pose in bikinis for them.

What many Americans may not know is that these were only the US versions of longer-running magazines with many international editions, and they all started in England in the mid-90s. John Harris's essential book Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock links the rise of these "lad mags" with the rise of Blur and Oasis and the demise of the Conservative Party. Heady times, as lad culture and a love of lager and soccer were louder and prouder than they'd been in years. Basically, the English editions are a little more than the tame girlie mags we got here - they're handbooks for single men in their twenties who embraced the culture. And they're slightly more risque, since it's de rigeur in the UK for twentysomething starlets with small roles in Hollyoaks to pose topless. But they're still no more explicit than Playboy was in 1969.

Maxim, Stuff and FHM found it easy to make the jump to US publishing, and it guaranteed a larger bank of pictorials for their international editions. So before long, the British edition could feature photospreads of American starlets like Alyssa Milano and Alyson Hannigan in their undies, and English starlets like Davinia Taylor and Gail Porter in very tame layouts with an occasional discreet nude photo.

Loaded, and their competitor Front, had no easy access to the WB's starlets, and no easy access to the BBC's starlets either, so they settled for the Sun / Daily Sport Page 3 set, giving the likes of Sophie Howard and Lucy Pinder more exposure. They're still just this shy of full-frontal, but considerably more explicit than their fellows, with unbelievably shallow PHWOAARRR LADS text features. In other words, remember how, in 1994, Grant Morrison created Big Dave specifically to lampoon the sort of morons who live their days guided by Daily Sport and Loaded editorials? This, of all places, is where Fleetway chose to advertise 2000 AD.

Then again, as has been mentioned in previous entries, Fleetway is the same company that blew tens of thousands on a cartoon ad which only aired in the wee hours on the poorly-viewed Sky Sports subscription channel.

How the heck this happened is described by Bishop thusly, on page 198 of Thrill-Power Overload:

"In 1997, a long-running dispute between Egmont Fleetway and IPC was settled when the comic publisher was offered £25,000 of free advertising in IPC's publications. It was decided to utilise this by hyping 2000 AD in the pages of Loaded. An advertising agency was brought in to design the ads and came up with the slogan, `2000 AD: Women Just Don't Get It'."

Bishop goes on to explain how this was completely out of the hands of the comic's editorial department, and that he was forbidden by the publisher from responding to reader complaints about the ads, which were pretty offensive, but more importantly, they were goddamned stupid. I mean, these really are the worst ads I've ever seen for a comic book, and whatever bozo came up with these things really had no clue at all. Somebody got paid for this! Well, Thrill-Power Overload was not able to reproduce the ads, which no doubt has left some readers curious about the articles in question. Fortunately, scans later made their way to the official site's message board, courtesy of user "opaque":

Yep. Bishop writes of several instances where editorial's desires came crashing against the marketing department of Fleetway and the focus-group goons who ran the place, but this might have been the most egregious and downright wince-inducing example. Personally, I don't know that I'm bothered by the jawdropping misogyny quite as much as the notion that these ads are supposed to sell a comic book which has never made a practice of excluding anybody.

It wasn't completely the PR nightmare that it could've been. It apparently cost the comic more than it gained, as offended readers cancelled their subscriptions, but the story wasn't picked up by any media, and, mercifully, the comic blogosphere didn't exist then. Because really, Marvel Comics may have pathetic statues of Mary Jane, and DC may apparently disrespect the memory of fictional females who dressed as Robin for two months before being killed off, and they both may release action figures that can't stand upright because their boobs make 'em topple forward, but when it comes to outright sexism and contempt for your readers, what you see there just can't be beat.

Thrillpowered Thursday's going to take a week off while the kids enjoy a spring break with their grandparents. I'm rereading the comic while they're enjoying it for the first time, and I don't want to get too far ahead of them. We'll be back in two weeks for the return of Sinister Dexter. Credo!

(Originally published 4/10/08 at LiveJournal.)

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