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Reading: The New Sexy

Women can’t resist a ‘good booking’ man, claims Penguin. I’m hot just thinking about it.

By Shannon Rupp 9 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Is that a Penguin in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Apparently that’s a pickup line the U.K. division of Penguin Publishing is hoping to inspire with its campaign to convince horny young men that sexy young women long for a guy willing to sink his teeth into literature.

The strategy was inspired by a British poll last spring that claims women prefer men who read. Maybe some women. But it’s clear the kind of woman Penguin thinks non-reading men want to impress. The promotional website features a scantily clad model with a come-hither look and the slogan: “Good looking women want good booking men.” 

The marketing wonks have also found some TV psychologist to confirm that reading makes a man more appealing and helps him develop his chat-up lines. And, and they assure us, even if he doesn’t read the book, just carrying it in a prominent place will enhance his appeal.

Pitching the lovelorn

Penguin’s pitch to the lovelorn includes testimonials obviously written by company bookworms who have decided to turn their sweaty-palmed fantasies into cheesy promotional copy. Here’s the tale of Jack and Lucy.

Lucy: I was married when I met Jack at work. My ex-husband was a big, sporty guy earning loads of money, but I was drawn to Jack. He was quiet and unassuming, but I’d heard around the office that he’d worked his way through a whole string of contemporary fiction, which I found intriguing and, soon after, quite sexy.

Jack: I thought Lucy was way out of my league attractive and very confident. But then one day I was reading The Catcher in the Rye over a sandwich when she came up and said, “If you asked me to go to a bookshop with you at lunch time, I’d do it". We went the next day. It was the first time I’d done it with a married woman.

For insights into the nature of copywriter who thinks a grown man fascinated by Catcher in the Rye would strike any woman as hot, let me just refer you to the Jennifer Aniston film, The Good Girl, which explores the disturbing world of a Holden Caulfield fan.

Heavy breathing

But the biggest problem with this campaign isn’t the faintly seedy approach. The marketing geniuses who have applied the truism “Sex Sells” to pumping up male readership might be the adventurers of the book trade but they’re behind the curve in the larger world of word-selling. Their plan doesn’t begin to address the problem that plagues all print media -- there are a finite number of readers out there, and a finite number of advertisers. Eventually the edict to make more and more money with fewer and fewer resources is exhausted and the market goes flaccid.

Magazines figured this out long ago. Jailbird Martha is the queen of cross-promotion selling home decor items to complement her magazine and TV shows. Now Maxim, the American lad mag, is selling hair colour for men and contemplating putting the Maxim brand on night clubs and frozen dinners. And Prevention magazine, light-and-bright reading for the health-obsessed, is planning a line of vitamins.

Clearly, if Penguin wants to boost income, it has to associate itself with the kinds of products that are always in demand, and will make customers come again and again.

Let’s get down to it

The sex angle is good, since it appeals to most people, but the idea needs some, er, massaging.

For example, they could arouse interest in books by licensing a dating service where people are matched according to what the read. This is actually a public service. Think of how much effort and energy one could save by knowing that a man thinks of Nick Hornby characters as role models? Want to avoid narcissists and poseurs? Cross off all the candidates who claim to be Doug Coupland fans.

Book catalogues would become must-reads if they had personals ads at the back. When a woman with 38-24-36 stats notes that she’s looking for Mr. Darcy, it could lead to water cooler speculation  and great word-of-mouth. Has Dan Savage come up with another catchy name for an exotic act? Just watch those Pride and Prejudice sales climax as would-be-lovers try to read between the lines.

Every bookstore has a coffee shop these days, but for a romantic twist how about a hotel?  Yes, they could license Penguin Love Nests. Maybe different publishers would want to sponsor theme rooms. I’ll leave it to you to envision what the Harlequin designers would come up with, but it’s probably safe to expect animal skins of some kind.

Then Penguin could brand sex-enhancing accoutrements that sport the names of famous characters. For example, when the son doesn’t always rise, there could be a Jake Barnes line of herbal supplements, lotions, and videos. For the women attracted to bad boys, how about a Heathcliff riding crop?  For those who always say yes, there could be Molly Bloom lubricant. Anais Nin French ticklers are a natural. Penguin is known for publishing classics, so how about honouring  Anna Karenina’s obsession with a Vronksy vibrator -- cunningly shaped like a pistol.

Just think of it as the multiple orgasm of marketing campaigns.

I’m available

The only thing left to do was expose Penguin to my genius. But first I thought I’d test-market the idea at this fall’s Word on the Street festival. That’s when an insightful man in the audience made it clear to what degree I misunderstand the male psyche. The flaw in my scheme? It was too complicated to attract men.

“Why not just add pheromones to the books?” he suggested. Yes, in true masculine fashion Pheromone-Boy, as I’ve come to think of him, preferred to cut to the chase and infuse the books with mate-arousing chemicals that were guaranteed to inflate Penguin sales.

By now I supposed the mystery man has contacted them. He’s probably getting rich. No doubt we can expect to hear of business magazines celebrating him as the guru he obviously is. I can just imagine the congratulatory headlines: Penguin, the company that revived publishing by giving “chicklit” a whole new meaning.

Vancouver writer Shannon Rupp is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

   [Tyee]

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