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Sex sells, right?

Those glossy magazine covers strategically displayed at the checkout counter not only catch our eye with pictures of voluptuous women scantily clad and headlines that stir the imagination but cause some of us to buy.

More skin equals more revenue. Isn’t that how it works?

Like Pavlov’s dog, publishers are hoping we’ll buy their sex-glutted magazines and scratch the itch we didn’t realize was so strong. They’re counting on the fact that great photos of beautiful models will make us flip through the pages and not only buy a copy but pay for a subscription. Why go to the store when we can have it mailed to our home? And they’ll even make renewing easy anything to keep us happy and our dollars committed. But just how many of our dollars do we commit?

Sure, sex sells. Hugh Hefner took that premise five decades ago and turned his magazine business into a multi-million dollar empire. But how well do skin magazines fare compared to publications that keep their clothes on?

According to Magazine Publishers of America, or MPA, Playboy‘s total circulation revenue in 2001 was nearly $109 million. But that was nothing compared to Reader’s Digest, which garnered almost $317 million the same year. It seems more people were willing to plunk down their dollars to enrich their word power than to take a peek at the centerfold. Playboy landed as the 17th top magazine that year; Reader’s Digest came in at number three.

Maybe Hefner’s offerings are too hardcore and what readers really want is just to be tantalized, leaving much more to the imagination. Maybe they want sex tips and bodacious bedroom behavior described but not pictured.


Better Homes and Gardens boasted total circulation revenue of $150.5 million in 2001, according to MPA, while Cosmopolitan garnered $103.5 million. More women picked up Good Housekeeping ($97 million in total circulation revenue) than Glamour ($81 million) and snatched up more copies of Family Circle ($110 million) than Vogue (nearly $38 million), Elle ($27 million) and Vanity Fair ($35 million) combined.

Woman’s Day topped Mademoiselle, Boy’s Life beat out FHM, and The American Legion Magazine sold more copies than Maxim.

There is no skin in the top ten, unless you count the bare-breasted African tribal women that are occasionally featured in National Geographic Magazine. And speaking of the publication known for its prize-winning photography and in-depth articles on world travel and exploration, National Geographic Magazine‘s total circulation revenue for 2001 was nearly $230 million. That figure tops Penthouse and Playboy circulation revenue combined. There are more little Jacque Cousteaus and Jane Goodalls out there than there are Hugh Hefners. Sex sells, but sextants sell more.

So what did make the top ten in terms of circulation numbers? AARP Bulletin, Modern Maturity, Reader’s Digest, TV Guide, National Geographic Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Time The Weekly Magazine, in that order.

Steamy magazines tantalize, but the majority of readers are more interested in family. They want tips on cooking, gardening and relationship building. They want to read inspirational stories of people who overcame extraordinary odds to accomplish great feats. They want to take better care of their bodies and their minds, expand their vocabulary and read of places far away.

As for the skin magazines, they’ll leave those at the checkout counter there just isn’t enough there.

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