Page 3 girl Poppy and Thomas Jefferson make an unlikely couple. Yet the 21-year-old, who appeared bare-breasted in only a pair of lacy knickers in Britain’s No. 1 daily newspaper, the Sun, recently cited Jefferson in defense of press freedom, which certainly benefits a tabloid that features a topless woman every day on its third page. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” she counseled legislators from her Page 3 perch. The Sun could use the U.S. founding father’s help. A “No More Page 3” campaign to “Take the Bare Boobs out of the Sun” on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook (FB) has gathered more than 87,000 signatures since September. Following a Twitter barrage against the Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp. (NWS) chief even tweeted that he was considering replacing the 42-year-old fixture with shots of “glamorous fashionistas”—who likely would keep their clothes on.
As newspaper circulation continues its downward spiral, tabloids are tinkering to attract new readers. British and European titles added pinups decades ago to attract working-class males. Now they want women readers—and the advertisers that target them. Today women make up 45 percent of readership at the Sun, which has a daily circulation of about 2.3 million. “The column is old-fashioned and out-of-date,” says Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon. “If people want access to soft porn, they can get it anywhere.”
The Sun’s Page 3 girl first appeared in print after Murdoch bought the Sun in 1969. The idea was to court blue-collar men by giving them a “daily ogle,” says David Banks, a former editor at the Sun and New York Post. Banks says part of his job was choosing the Page 3 girl for the next day’s paper. “I used to pick them by looking in their eyes for that girl-next-door look that a guy thought he could have a chance with.”
The “No More Page 3” campaign was started by Lucy-Anne Holmes, a writer living in the coastal town of Hove who said she was saddened during last year’s London Olympics when the Sun’s coverage of female athletes was overshadowed by larger photos of topless Page 3 models. “We’re a society that makes women feel bad for breast-feeding in public, yet we have Page 3,” Holmes says. She wrote a letter to the Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan, but says she didn’t receive a reply. She then took her campaign online. In an e-mail, a Sun spokeswoman said the tabloid, which says it has 7.5 million readers, “is the U.K.’s best-selling newspaper seven days a week, which means its unique formula is working.”
Page 3 has drawn opposition before. In the 1980s lawmaker Clare Short introduced a bill in Parliament to kill the feature. The Sun’s editors branded her “Crazy Clare” and “Killjoy Clare” and after the bill was voted down asked several male politicians who voted against the measure to pose with their favorite Page 3 “lovely,” Short says.
As pressure to ban the feature heats up again, British universities including Oxford and the London School of Economics have canceled subscriptions to the Sun, the U.K.’s PressGazette reported last month. In early March toymaker Lego discontinued a long-running promotion, in which readers were offered free Lego toys, without giving a reason.
The whole idea of newspaper pinups is a “somewhat dinosauric concept,” says David Jones, chief executive officer of advertising company Havas. Jones says a Sun decision to axe the column could likely cause a short-term drop in advertising but in the long term “makes the brand more contemporary and interesting.” It would also support the Sun’s claims that it is a family newspaper, he says.