campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 03 December 2004 12:00AM
Powerful things, supermarket chains. The Tescos of this world are the most influential gatekeepers in our lives - and it's becoming true that all FMCG manufacturers end up dancing to their tune. Such is the leverage of the major chains that they can hold the power of life and death over even the biggest of brands. If you find yourself comprehensively delisted then you're basically dead, unless you think you can make a living out of corner-shop sales.
Last week, a row began brewing when it emerged that Tesco has started asking publishers to submit their titles for vetting before agreeing to put them on the shelves, to make sure that it does not display offensive material.
A Tesco spokeswoman says: "We want to stock as wide a range of magazines as possible. However, we are a family store and we have had complaints from customers with young children about some magazine covers."
Should the industry in general be worried about this development though?
Ian Locks, the chief executive of the Periodical Publishers Association, says a measured response is needed - but does admit there are worrying implications. He comments: "It is perfectly understandable that retailers have a right to decide what to put on their shelves. And it is also true that the guidelines produced by Tesco are perfectly reasonable. The implications, however, are another matter."
At a time when the Government is looking to relax the rules covering the distribution business, he believes it is not inconceivable that Tesco will seek to increase its power base in distribution as well as retail.
"Take the two issues together and we're looking at a matter of creeping powers," Locks says. "In terms of publication sales, Tesco is large and getting larger. At what point does it start challenging The Sun or, as is more likely, the Star? It is very important that we're all aware of the censorship implications."
And what of advertisers? This is an awkward issue for most companies.
They're so often reliant on the likes of Tesco that they'd look a bit sheepish taking a high moral tone on this one. It's compounded by the fact that Tesco is a strong member of ISBA. So it was perhaps unsurprising to find ISBA indicating that this is not a "central enough issue" for the society to get involved in.
Civil liberties groups, however, are less reticent, agreeing that it is potentially a censorship issue and want to mobilise public opinion to fight the issue with a zero-tolerance approach.
But magazines aren't the only products whose existence depends on the whim of a few bosses at a handful of retail chains. And publishers face many economic pressures besides distribution worries. Also, some publishers say privately that they have no problems with Tesco. Quite the reverse, in fact.
Tim McCloskey, a partner at OMD UK, thinks he knows why: "I think we all know that some publishers have been pushing the limits and now effectively we've got Tesco saying, 'hang on a minute'. But it's all just a storm in a D-cup and I'm not sure you can really make it into a censorship issue.
The truth is that from a circulation point of view, magazines and newspapers have much to thank Tesco for. They are hard taskmasters but they are very good at what they do. If publishers are putting out indecent material, then the Tesco reaction will in any case be irrelevant to advertisers because they won't be in those publications in the first place."
Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of Media Planning Group, isn't so sure. This, he says, could have unfortunate PR repercussions for Tesco. "I believe it has to be very careful it doesn't abuse its market dominance. Anyone who starts abusing their power begins to get a reputation as the people you love to hate. Which would be unfortunate because at the moment everyone loves Tesco because it is clearly the best by a long way," he says.
Mark Gallagher, the press director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, believes Tesco is a long way from abusing its power, although he agrees the increasing concentration of sales within so few magazine retailers has taken some of the power away from publishers.
He says: "The consumer is king so if Tesco has had complaints, I understand why they have an issue with it. If a front cover is too outrageous then it's not just the supermarkets but any retailer that would express concern. But the competition is so strong for space on the newsstand that this will put pressure on publishers to make changes."
Locks: "Tesco is already very powerful in the distribution business and they have been seeking even more power. The implications here are potentially very serious indeed - and with requests for pre-vetting, the implications are that this could lead to censorship in the future. That is a black hole that's frightening to look down into."
McCloskey: "I think this has all been taken out of proportion. The simple fact is that (Tesco) has always had a positive impact on sales. If you are legal and decent and honest and you are not obscene I don't think there will ever be a case of you not being given access to the Tesco shelves."
Mendoza: "It can't have escaped anyone's attention that some men's magazines now look like soft porn mags did 20 years ago. I'm not entirely convinced that's the issue, though. Putting a semi naked woman on the front cover is not illegal. If Tesco have a problem they should put them on the top shelf."
Jacob: "I feel they should perhaps work more in partnership with publishers rather than doing things in what seems a formal basis. We know from self regulatory bodies like the Advertising Standards Authority that self-regulation can work and work well."
NO - Ian Locks, chief executive, PPA
"Tesco is already very powerful in distribution and has been seeking more power. With requests for pre-vetting, the implications are that this could lead to censorship in the future. That is a black hole that's frightening to look down into."
YES - Tim McCloskey, partner, OMD UK
"I think this has all been taken out of proportion. Tesco has always had a positive impact on sales. If you are legal and decent and honest and not obscene, I don't think there'll ever be a case of you not being given access to the Tesco shelves."
NO - Marc Mendoza, chief executive, MPG
"Some men's titles now look like soft porn mags did 20 years ago. I'm not entirely convinced that's the issue, though. Putting a semi-naked woman on the cover is not illegal. If Tesco has a problem, it should put them on the top shelf."
MAYBE - Mark Gallagher, press director, MG OMD
"If Tesco starts trying to censor lads' magazines then it's the thin end of the wedge. But this sounds mainly about positioning: if these magazines are by a checkout where children can pick them up, then fair enough."
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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk