Sex, Stereotypes, and Sectarianism: The battle between two Irish Elskas — Belfast vs Dublin; and how to select the right cover design
One of my main goals with my Elska Magazine project is to give a wide variety of geographical diversity, and by consequence human diversity, through my collection of issues. Over the past five years I've produced thirty-two different editions so far, and at least one has been made on every continent, except Antarctica. For the past two new issues however, both were made on the same island, Ireland.
I made this choice to do two Irish Elskas in part because the travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19 made it necessary to shoot in places where I could easily and legally go to using my U.K. passport. Also, the infection rates, at least at the time of shooting in August 2020, were very low across Ireland. But also, I wanted to show that the two Irish capitals are very different, and therefore that making two Elskas on the same island would not feel repetitive. (I should say here that I'm not making a political statement with this — Belfast and Dublin simply are very different places, whether they be part of the same state or not.)
Once I did release both issues, I was very curious to see how each would fare, particularly in terms of sales. My assumption was that Elska Dublin would do much better, mainly because of that city's larger global footprint — everyone's heard of Dublin whereas those outside the U.K. and Ireland often wouldn't be able to place Belfast on a map; and also because of population — Dublin is twice the size of Belfast, meaning locals should be twice as likely to want to pick up a copy.
To my surprise, my assumption has not proved so accurate. So far the amount of sales of each edition is almost exactly the same (to be precise, Elska Dublin has sold just ten copies more than Elska Belfast, at the time of writing). This inspired me to do a little digging, to see what's going on, both by dissecting the sales data and talking to some of my most loyal Elska readers. This endeavour led me to a conclusion, particularly about how greatly a cover design influences sales, what I can describe using three phenomena: sex, stereotypes, and sectarianism…
Just look at those covers. The Dublin one is a more traditional image, at least where Elska is concerned, with a rather Irish-looking boy standing on a very Irish-looking street. It just screams Ireland. The Belfast cover also screams Ireland, but in a different sort of way — ginger hair and ginger pubes — which leads me to one aspect of sales influence: stereotypes. I've actually only received one complaint about either issue, which was that the Dublin issue didn't have any ginger guys. I knew the redhead fetish could play into how the issues would be received, which is why I put such a red-hot cover on the Belfast issue, as a way of saying, "I know you want ginger, so here's your f*cking ginger". The fact was though that I met just two gingers in Belfast and none in Dublin, and my methodology for selecting the guys who get published in Elska is totally uncurated — if someone wants to be in it, they're in it. I don't scout for any particular type of models.
I'm not saying that many, or even any people bought Elska Belfast specifically because of a ginger fascination; to be fair, in the right light our Elska Dublin cover boy might appear ginger, or at least some shade of strawberry. And as stereotypes go, the Dublin cover, with its green shirt and pub-lined street full of Irish tricolour bunting is just as much of a stereotype. Which leads me to my other phenomenon, sex. If you're someone who's never seen or heard of Elska, each of these covers may suggest a very different content. It's probably a fact that sex sells, and the Belfast cover certainly suggests a more sexual content than the other (even if that Dublin cover boy has one of the most beautiful bottoms I've ever laid eyes on, one that makes you want to literally caress the page). In reality the Dublin issue has more graphic content, including more nudity and more naughtiness, but the cover itself doesn't suggest this.
Finally, let's get into that last phenomenon, sectarianism. I'm not referring to politics here, but rather to national pride in general. Both issues sold especially well in their own countries — Elska Dublin is the highest selling issue ever among Republic of Ireland customers, and Elska Belfast is the second-highest selling issue among U.K. customers (after Elska Cardiff). Yet in terms of crossover, there have been only ten sales of Elska Belfast among R.O.I. customers, which is pretty average. U.K. customer purchases of Elska Dublin in turn are slightly below average. What is striking though is how, per capita at least, sales of Elska Belfast specifically from Northern Irish customers was off the charts. There was a real enthusiasm coming from their community about a magazine dedicated entirely to them, whereas from the Dublin community, it was a exciting, but not quite so astonishing. Dublin gets a lot of attention, and while Belfast does as well, it's usually a much more negative and specific type of attention, namely a focus on politics, hatred, and terrorism. Nevertheless, in both cases I could count on support from the local community to boost sales overall.
To use another issue as an example, I'm currently running a vote among Elska's deluxe annual subscribers and Patreon supporters to choose the cover of our next issue, one made in Brazil. The cover that's currently in the lead caused one voter to write in with the comment, "love the blend of queerness and poverty". I hadn't even thought about the cover in terms of the background being a poor-looking street, but the stereotype of Brazil as not just 'poor' but 'poor and sexy' is probably key to this cover's popularity. I don't know how comfortable I am with generating interest based on the notion of 'poverty porn', but I suppose that's partly why I'm letting the fans select this cover. They can take the blame!
Overall, I am finally understanding that the key to making an Elska that will sell well is about having a cover that balances sex, stereotype, and national pride. Looking at the wider sales from beyond the island of Ireland, Elska Dublin did attract more interest, leading me to believe that if I’d put a naked ginger guy on the cover of that issue, it would have blown Elska Belfast out of the water. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, I'm not all that motivated by sales, but rather by art and by diversity.
For one, even though all Elska issues contain nudity, my project is not purely about that, so it would feel disingenuous to make every cover about sex, even if it would sell more. It would also be uncomfortable to let every issue play to stereotypes… is that fact that I put a South Asian guy on the cover of Elska Sydney and a white guy on the cover of Elska Perth, our two Australian issues, the reason why the latter sold hugely more, despite Sydney's cover being nude and Perth's fully clothed? Or maybe it's more to with the strong wellspring of sectarian Perth pride that trumps a nonchalant over-it Sydney identity. It's surely a bit of both, though it's worth noting how much race plays a part in sales —recently one shop ordered ten copies of eight different issues, and surely it's not accidental that all eight of these issues had white men on their covers.
I'm starting to feel concern for how to deal with the future cover of an issue that I’m planning to shoot in Africa in late May, 2021. This will be in a relatively poor country where locals might not even order a single copy, so the national pride factor in sales will be null. Therefore, to make it sell beyond that country, does that mean I should up the sex and stereotype factors? Is this a compromise that I can be forgiven for even if it feels ethically murky?
If only I thought to put a naked brown body on the cover of Elska Dhaka, one of my all-time favourite issues, but one of the lowest sellers, it might have been a bigger sales hit. You'd have the 'sex sells' factor plus attention from the contingent of 'desi boy lovers', keen to flirt with their fetishes. But I chose not to do that, it just didn't feel appropriate in a city where the men I met generally wanted to be a bit more demure with their sexuality. Anyway, I love my Dhaka cover, and if it doesn’t resonate with the wider public, so be it. I probably shouldn’t be making magazines in Bangladesh at all if sales is all I care about. I just have to hope that enough people buy the issues made in rich cities and/or those with sexy, attention-grabbing covers, so that they can balance out any loss of revenue when I publish other kinds of issues. This is a trade-off I can live with. I'm frankly terrified that this African city will cause me to lose a tonne of money, but I also feel beyond compelled and inspired to do it anyway. We'll just have to see what happens, and if it bombs, I'll shoot another issue in Berlin or something, that'll always do well.
Liam Campbell is editor and chief photographer of Elska Magazine, a project all about travelling the world, meeting a bunch of local guys, and letting readers meet them too via honest photography and personal storytelling.