Sex sells ... sometimes

My first newspaper job was at the Toronto Sun. The tabloid is well known for its pull-out sports section, its coverage of crime, and its daily photo feature called the “Sunshine Girl” (properly spelled SUNshine Girl, presumably to pay homage to the most important star in our galaxy). 

The Sunshine Girl is typically a slim young, woman photographed in a sexy pose accompanied by a short biographical sketch. For example, a recent edition features Mimo, “a model, aspiring actress, and belly dancer who’s currently studying filmmaking.”

This does not represent the height of tact but presumably it sells newspapers (as well as Sunshine Girl calendars).

The Sunshine Girl is popular in the same way that Hooters is popular (the United States’ chain restaurant’s slogan is “delightfully tacky yet unrefined”). People would often ask about my involvement with the daily feature upon learning that I was a Toronto Sun employee.

“Do you ever meet the Sunshine Girl?” greying, middle-aged men would ask. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Since I was an accountant in the circulation department, my involvement was exactly the same as the average reader, which is to say none. This admission was always met with disappointment.

The British tabloid The Sun goes two steps further with its daily “Page 3” feature. Like the Sunshine Girl, the Page 3 model is typically a slim, young woman in a suggestive pose. Unlike the Canadian edition, the United Kingdom’s version shows bare breasts.

Unsophisticated? Yes. Sexist? Many people say so. It’s also successful. The Sun is Britain’s highest circulation newspaper, serving an audience of more than 5 million daily readers. Wink wink, nudge nudge, indeed.

Tabloids say sex is here to stay

Page 3 made international headlines earlier this year when it was reported The Sun was covering up its models. In mid-January, The Independent divulged that The Sun had “stopped publishing photographs of topless women.”

Credit was given to the No More Page 3 campaign, an organisation dedicated to “taking the bare boobs out of the Sun.” It was a short-lived win. Two days later the Sun ran the Page 3 woman, topless again, winking at the camera. There she remains today.

In the mid-2000s, the Toronto Sun moved its own Sunshine Girl feature from page 3 to the back of the newspaper. That very day, after having not spoken to me in months, my brother called me at the office: “What have you guys done?” I had no explanation. Likely an effort to be more family friendly, I guessed.

After some time and in response to reader demand, the Sunshine Girl returned to the front of the newspaper, while also remaining at the back. The two poses remain in the newspaper to this day. For what it is worth, readers can now learn twice as much about Mimo.

Then again, sex doesn’t sell

The notion that sex sells is not new. However, the rules are different for broadsheet newspapers.

In a media landscape where “the medium is the message,” broadsheet newspapers are serious, conservative, and intellectual. Rarely do scantily clad women adorn the printed pages of the broadsheets. Unsurprisingly, there is no Wall Street Journal Girl, even though the newspaper is part of the same News Corp family as the Sun in the UK.

Unless covering the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition or the twerking Miley Cyrus – with accompanying photos – broadsheets are decidedly unsexy.

Sex sells:

  • Beer.

  • Pop songs.

  • Glossy magazines. 

  • Tabloid newspapers.

Sex does not sell:

  • Gasoline.

  • Coaxial cable.

  • Toenail clippers.

  • Broadsheet newspapers.

And so Page 3 girls and Sunshine Girls will continue to wink from the pages of the tabloids. And broadsheets will continue to cover it as news. Just don’t expect the two to agree on whether sex sells.

About Kevin Curnock

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