Is it true that white guys make us the money?
Not long ago we got an email from the boyfriend of one of the guys featured in Elska Magazine. He explained how upsetting it was for him to see that the promo image we posted of him on our Instagram got far fewer likes than practically all the other men posted recently. I had a look and the difference was indeed clear and stark. I didn't know what to say or how to explain it, but my reaction was that his post got fewer impact than the others because he was a chubby black guy.
I noticed long ago how predictable Instagram users are in terms of what gets their attention. I even decided to be scientific about it, doing a tally of all our posts from the past six months and counting their likes. It drew a conclusion that most impact was had by posts of young, fit, and preferably naked white men. Below them were Asians, and at the bottom were black men. There are exceptions of course, but overall white guys of any body type or age got 3x–4x more likes than anyone else. And of course Instagram's algorithm exacerbates the problem, actively hiding posts from followers when they don't make an instant impact.
I could decide to accept this reality, but I chose instead to ignore Instagram as much as possible, posting daily just to have a presence but then trying not to engage further. While I recognise that Instagram is an important mainstream marketing tool, for the sake of my sanity I simply can't allow myself to be informed and affected by it. That’s why recently we decided to start posting one image of every single guy ever in Elska (there are now over 400) with no repetition, in a way to show that they all will have equal spotlight from us, regardless of how well they’ll probably be received by Instagram users.
The important question for us really is whether Instagram likes reflects the sales of our actual publication. We've so far published issues in twenty-two diverse cities from all over the world, some in cities with predominantly white populations and some in cities with little to no white populations — is it that our 'white issues' sell 3x-4x more than our 'non-white' ones? Is it true that white guys make us the money? Well, the good news is that the difference is not as clear as Instagram would suggest, but there are still some signs of racialised behaviour…
- Of our top five all-time selling issues, three of them were set in rather white places: Reykjavík (Iceland), Berlin (Germany), and Perth (Australia). However, the other two in our top five were made in Asia: Taipei (Taiwan) and Seoul (Korea).
- Our second-lowest selling issue was our only one so far to be made in Africa, our Cape Town (South Africa) issue. Certainly black men are some of the most invisible men in gay media and I genuinely think that Elska Cape Town is one of the best issues we’ve done, but perhaps race is a reason why it didn't perform as well as others. Incidentally the only time we ever got letters complaining that the guy on the cover was "ugly" and "not worthy of a cover" referred to a cover with a black guy on it. Gross!
- We sometimes see racialised patterns in orders. For example, after we released our Seoul (Korea) issue, we noticed several people who chose to buy three issues at once, and those three were our three East Asian issues — Taipei, Yokohama, and Seoul. And last week a customer ordered eight issues at once but all of them were ones made in Western cities. However, while I am quick to notice such patterns, they are by no means common overall.
- Interestingly our two lowest selling issues were both made in Western and rather homogeneously white cities: Helsinki (Finland) and Stockholm (Sweden). The low sales of these may suggest that race isn't such a big factor at least among Elska customers. Perhaps it could be explained by the fact that these two issues had the lowest amount of nudity of any Elska issues!
So while there are signs of race involved in some customers’ decision-making, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not happening as much as it does on Instagram. And probably Instagram users are not our customer base. Maybe we should do more cities in Europe and Australia for the sake of business. However, I believe that the geographical diversity of Elska's catalogue is what makes the project as a whole compelling. If we need the sales of an issue in Iceland to fund the sales of one in India, so be it.
I just wish that race didn't have to be a factor in my work. When we released our first Asian issue we actually got complaints from subscribers saying they hoped there wouldn't be more Asian issues because, "Sorry, I'm just not into Asians." But we also sometimes get letters saying they only buy non-white issues because "white guys are boring". I appreciate this little act of defiance, but I'd frankly rather just do my work and not get into the politics of it all. But then again, politics is everywhere and just because I happen to be a white guy doesn't mean I get to ignore it.
Liam Campbell is editor and chief photographer of Elska Magazine. 2019 will see issues made all over the world, including two in East Asia, one in South Asia, one in North America, one in Latin America, and one in Europe.