“Thou shall always drink more than you can handle.” Credit: The Inbetweeners

August 9, 2023   5 mins

“Thou shall covet thy neighbour’s breasts.” “Thou shall always drink more than you can handle.” “Thou shall specialise in creating and distributing exquisite banter.” “Thou shall share hot Milf with friend if opportunity arises.” “Thou shall always prefer Pippa to Kate Middleton.” “Thou shall inform everyone when thou require a poo.”

These are not excerpts from an ill-advised Church of England youth outreach programme. These are some of the 250-odd “Lad Commandments”, upon which the blokey media empire LadBible was founded in 2011. Lad culture had passed out of its Nineties pomp by then, but it remained potent. The Sun was still publishing topless models on Page 3. The Inbetweeners had shoved words like “clunge” and “minge” into the public consciousness. “Proper Moist”, a comedy song about girls “walking like Robocop” after a night of lovemaking, reached number 15 on the UK singles chart in 2014.

It was a time when Facebook was filled with teenagers rather than pensioners. I was one of them, sharing the now-antiquated memes — “one does not simply walk into Mordor” — that Elon Musk still finds funny. LadBible’s Facebook posts, which mainly concerned hot women, were ubiquitous. The last item of 2011 is a poll of words for breasts: “melons”, “jugs”, “fun bags”, “barrys”, “tats”, “boobs” and “chebs”. In 2012, one post asks: “What do you think of Miley Cyrus’ Side boob lads?” (Side boobs, being titillating but non-pornographic, were a major preoccupation.) Other features included the self-explanatory “Bumday Mondays” and “Cleavage Thursdays”.

Browsing through those early Facebook posts today is akin to wading through hastily shredded documents in an abandoned embassy. The images don’t load properly; the links direct to a page on its website which reads: “Sorry, this content isn’t available right now.” Around 2015, LadBible cleaned up its act. Co-founder Alexander “Solly” Solomou redefined the lad as “someone who spots a grandma crossing the road with heavy shopping, someone with manners, who is polite, who can be a hero”. He didn’t regret the earlier material but described it as a “learning curve”. Misogyny had become a commercial drag: “We realised that certain things needed to change if we wanted to compete with those guys in the States.”

This proved to be correct. In December 2021, the controlling LadBible Group floated on the second tier of London’s stock market at £360 million. It now has multiple brands and boasts of “a global audience approaching 1 billion”, of which 40% is female. The focus is on less controversial, more easily monetised content: “Man goes on Antiques Roadshow with Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones”; “Seven signs you have a work husband or wife”; a video of a guy trying, and failing, to jump across a canal.

The chauvinistic weekend warrior was not just a limited audience but a shrinking one. After MeToo, lad culture lost its virility. The original lads grew up and settled down. Now they prefer weightlifting to binge drinking, and their wives tick them off if their banter goes too far. Gen Zs use second-hand drag slang — “it’s giving”; “throwing shade” ­— rather than patter like “reem” or “mint”. Lads thought girls were “gagging for it”, but today’s male contestants of Love Island handle the sexual agency of women with Clausewitzian levels of strategic delicacy. Modern footballers are upstanding, campaigning public figures rather than vodka-chugging louts (Jack Grealish the honourable exception). There is, of course, still plenty of grim sexism about, but misogyny no longer has a winking cultural ambassador to egg it on.

In truth, LadBible was driven by a different, more durable male archetype: the hardscrabble Thatcherite entrepreneur. Consider Solomou, a Stockport grammar-school boy who traded clothes on eBay in his early teens. In 2012, while studying business at Leeds University, he came across the embryonic LadBible and bought it from its creator, Oxford Brookes student Alex Partridge, for a reported £300. Arian Kalantari, Solomou’s childhood friend, came on board, and the duo’s knack for clickable content drove a breakneck expansion of the brand’s social media presence.

In 2018, they took over their competitor Unilad in a distinctly sober bit of manoeuvring. Unilad — a similar proposition to LadBible — was founded by Partridge, too, but he was forced out by his partners, leading to a lengthy legal battle after which the company was ordered to pay him £5 million. As Unilad struggled with debt and tax issues, the pair acquired the £5 million liability from Partridge, helping them swallow their rival outright. (Solomou is now the last man standing: last month, Kalantari left the company to pursue “new challenges and new adventures”.)

Similar commercial realism has spurred LadBible’s high-profile good works. In 2016, it launched a men’s mental health campaign called UOKM8?, which it reprised in 2018 and 2019. (It’s currently involved in Sadiq Khan’s “Maaate” campaign against sexual harassment.) And in 2019, Unilad set up an “illegal” blood bank for gay and bisexual men to protest a now-abolished law banning them from donating unless they refrained from sex. This, from a brand which temporarily shut down in 2012 after a piece remarked: “85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.”

Whatever their industry, blue-chip firms are far more likely to work with media organisations that say men should open up than those that make rape jokes. And a smartened-up LadBible has built a prolific sponsored content operation: it leverages its audience for branded campaigns with the likes of McDonald’s chicken nuggets, John Lewis, Nando’s, Google and Durex (who “came to us to kick start the conversation” around different condom fits).

Yet it is LadBible’s zeitgeisty mental health drive that is most revealing of its evolution. Brands that sell stuff to men — such as Nivea, Lynx and Gymshark — are now very interested in how those men are feeling. You can even buy a £795 jacket from Frahm which has “don’t keep it buttoned” stitched into the lining. (“Could this jacket help prevent depression?” asked the FT.) For his part, Alex Partridge, who presumably had some role writing or publishing the Lad Commandments, now posts on LinkedIn about his ADHD and #neurodiversity.

Many companies have gone on a similar journey to LadBible. Lynx, for example, used to make adverts about how its deodorant was irresistible to women, a quality touched upon in one particular Lad Commandment: “Thou shall always wear Lynx deodorant, as it is the deodorant which rakes in the pussy.” But as lad culture started crumbling, they enthusiastically began assembling their new ideal consumer: a soft, sensitive geezer who finds it okay to say he’s not okay.

This is a convenient customer to have. For one thing, he is happy to blame his problems on himself. The corporate vision of mental health is distinctly individualist: you’re sad because your brain isn’t quite right, so exercise consumer choice and get online therapy with BetterHelp. The alternative vision — that being miserable might have a lot to do with external things, such as economic rot and a loss of status in a post-patriarchal world — points to collective political action, and maybe higher taxes on those firms that seem so concerned about us. This scenario is clearly less appealing.

Yet while the lad has had his day, something worse might have taken his place. The popularity of Andrew Tate has proved that misogyny, though mostly cleared from the public sphere, is still widespread in young men. The vacuum left by the original LadBible was ripe to be filled. But while Tate is a sexist, he is not a lad — he is an individualist, with a lonely, materialistic vision of alphadom that offers a warped counterpart to the cuddly mental health discourse about working on yourself.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of lad culture was its camaraderie. What is “bros before hoes” if not an uncouth expression of male bonding? Lads are surrounded by their mates. Tate is surrounded by his Bugattis. Lads bunk off work. Tate sees wealth as the making of the man. How ironic, then, that as it has transformed its brand in the name of profit, LadBible has hemmed far closer to Tate’s view of the world than that of its one-time audience. Behind the beer goggles was always a cold, dead-eyed stare.

Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.