Maxim Overdrive

And you thought the folks behind Maxim were idiots.

Their ultra-popular "men's magazine" -- and I use both terms loosely -- is base, vacuous and, logically, sells like hotcakes. It's sort of like Playboy, only the models wear slightly more clothing and the articles aren't so brainy. (By "articles" I mean the words squeezed between all those hooter pictures) Maxim's publishers and editors have proven they're shrewd businesspeople. Since the British export arrived on this continent in 1997, its readership has swelled to 2.2 million per month and issues these days weigh in at nearly 300 ad-laden pages. After all, what could be more popular to young male readers and advertisers than sex, sports, beer and babes?

But this month, as the magazine celebrates its fifth birthday, it pulled off another marketing coup. A plan so simple it's brilliant. A plan that shows just how smart Maxim's staff is -- and how easily the mainstream media can be manipulated.

North American readers of Maxim's April issue, those who peer past Blade II's topless "Chilean stunner" Leonor Varela on the cover and don't get bogged down in the complex "Chill Your Chick" feature (a primer on turning "any girl into a beer-swilling, Super Bowl-watching strip joint junkie"), will notice the mag's city-of-the-year item. This year, Maxim picked New York City as the continent's top town. And Philadelphia. And Toronto. And Dallas. And nine other cities, hoping to boost sales by boosting the egos of its hometown-proud readers with 13 city-specific versions of the April issue.

Except Maxim made a boo-boo. Copies of the edition praising New York were shipped to Philly newsstands by mistake. Philadelphians were supposed to read about how "cool" the Liberty Bell is and why anyone disputing Philly's title as "The Greatest City on Earth" should "have a bite of this cheese-dipped knuckle sandwich." Instead, the typical resident of the City of Brotherly Love saw himself described as "a lard-ass with arteries packed as tight as a Colombian airline passenger's G.I. tract" living in "a glorified piss break between New York and D.C."

It wasn't just Eagles-eyed Philadelphians, though, who saw through the distribution screw up to the magazine's multi-tasking deception. The Detroit Free Press was suspicious and asked Maxim senior editor James Heidenry about its city's number one ranking. "It has a certain cachet," he replied reassuringly, "the same way a Coupe de Ville does." Asked outright if Detroit was just one of several cities singled out, Heidenry lied. "No," he said, "we love Detroit." When confronted by the Free Press a day later with evidence (the best thing about Detroit, the non-Detroit versions of the mag quipped, is that it's not quite Canada), Heidenry fessed up. "Like a guy juggling different girlfriends," he said with typical Maxim wit, "we told them all they were number one."

Denver newspapers, alas, weren't as swift as their Motor City counterparts. Denver Post columnist Bill Husted began his item about the Maxim feature with the line "Denver, you're the best" and quoted a chunk of the magazine's glowing description of the city: "Founded by rugged, leathery gold prospectors, populated by top snowboarders and easy-to-trap ski bunnies, and set like a gem into the majestic Rockies is a city that will literally take your breath away." He mentions that Maxim praised the Post's "journalist principles" and concludes his blurb by writing "let's be glad we're not one of the 12 Worst Cities On Earth: Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, LA, Miami, NYC, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington, D.C. And Maxim has plenty of mean things to say about them." In a similar column that appeared the same day in the Rocky Mountain News, Husted's counterpart Penny Parker proudly noted that "it's the town's bounty of beauties and babe-watching opportunities that snagged Maxim's vote."

Does it matter to Maxim that they fooled some readers and newspapers while others caught on? Probably not. The adage that no press is bad press holds true here. Maxim knew that by singling out a city as the world's best, they'd get their name into the boosteristic local dailies and onto local newscasts. (Heck, if the Foundation for Plastic Bags Stuck in Trees picked New York as the top city for plastic bags stuck in trees, the Big Apple's press corps would be all over that story.) Maxim likely figured that if somebody discovered them courting 13 different girlfriends at the same time -- which they probably knew would happen sooner or later, or indeed hoped it would -- its image as a frat boy prankster, T&A glossy wouldn't suffer.

They're right. Those who despise Maxim can't possibly think any less of it. In fact, I kind of appreciate how they've exposed papers like the Denver Post, which are willing to repeat any praise their city gets, regardless of who it's coming from and what it's praising. The Post may be upset it was hustled by Maxim -- well, that's what you get! Because even Maxim knows we all like to be told we're number one.

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor at Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta.

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