Is it time to take a serious look at bulk sales and the way they’re
recorded in the ABC figures? News International believes it is - last
week it began a mailshot campaign calling attention to alleged abuses of
the system by its rivals. Do advertisers really care? Or is this just
another squabble between publishers?
Bulk sales, according to News International, are increasingly being used
by some publishers to give an artificial impression of circulation
growth, thus undermining the Audit Bureau of Circulations figures as a
This may not be a devastating revelation to many in the industry. What
is new, however, is the fact that a major newspaper publisher is
prepared to say it so publicly.
News International has obviously decided that enough is enough. Last
week, it sent out a brochure to agencies and advertisers inviting them
to take a less than charitable view of the activities of its rivals.
Advertisers are encouraged to write to News International asking for
more information and to lobby the ABC demanding a more transparent
system for reporting circulation figures.
The most popular outlets for bulk sales are hotels or airlines.
Passengers in the first and business class cabins of an airline, say,
will all be given a copy of a quality broadsheet, which makes them
happy. And the publishers get trial readership among upmarket consumers,
which makes them happy. All of which should also make advertisers pretty
happy too - anything that encourages newspaper readership has to be a
good thing, surely?
But there is a fine line between promotional activity and using bulks to
pump up ailing circulation figures. Some newspapers have perhaps been
abusing the system - especially those whose circulations are falling
towards what they regard as psychologically important levels.
It may matter a lot to competing publishers, but is this much of an
issue for advertisers and agencies? Especially as the main trading
currency in the advertising market is the National Readership Survey,
not the ABC?
Clive Milner, the general manager of News Group, says that this is the
whole point of the exercise - he’s genuinely keen to find out what
people really think. ‘If there is no interest at all out there, then
fine,’ he agrees. ‘That would leave us free to do as we wished. If, for
instance, we were really keen on the circulation of the Times equalling
the Daily Telegraph’s, we could do it next week.’
Milner believes that there is a genuine lack of knowledge about the
issue - among agencies as well as advertisers. ABC reports are by no
means transparent and you have to work hard to get a true picture of the
marketplace. ‘To get to its last ABC, the Sunday Mirror had to bulk
around 100,000 copies. Are people really aware of that?
‘We are not suggesting that anyone is cheating but we are saying that
there is a lot of sharp practice around. Of course, there are genuine
test marketing exercises going on out there in the marketplace and that
is absolutely fine as far as we are concerned. But for some, this is the
newspaper equivalent of crack cocaine. The Sun’s ABC figure is basically
what the Sun sells. The Mirror has got itself into a position where it
has to keep shifting more and more bulks - how is it ever going to beat
Colin Gottlieb, a partner in Manning Gottlieb Media, argues that bulk
sales do have a value, both for the publications themselves and for
advertisers, especially if the appropriate sort of people are receiving
the extra copies. But he argues that it’s less an issue for advertisers
than for publishers.
‘Most papers have sensitive sales thresholds - for the Sun it’s four
million, for the Telegraph it’s one million, for the Independent it’s
300,000, for the Observer it’s 400,000. When circulations fall,
publishers seek to pump up bulk sales. They see it as part of their
‘It has an impact on the market in that a buyer’s perception of the
value of a particular title will be coloured if they believe its
circulation is in free-fall. So News International is probably justified
in drawing attention to this issue.’
Dominic Owens, the manager of marketing services at Mercury
Communications and chairman of the Press Action Group of the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, disagrees. ‘I’m not sure
that advertisers are aware of the full extent of the situation,’ he
maintains. ‘If publishers are abusing the system then I think they are
daft and it’s a very short-sighted thing to do. It won’t improve their
ad rates and it will undermine their standing in the long run.
‘But I’m not at all pleased that there is an open controversy about the
ABC figures either. The last thing we want to see is the ABC system
being challenged. The trouble with this sort of behaviour from News
International is that it might be worse than the problem they’re trying
to highlight. I really do hope they’ve tried other measures before going
this public route.’
Robert Ray, the deputy managing director of the Media Centre, finds it
ironic that News International is the whistle-blower - before its
demise, Today was one of the worst offenders in its market. But he
doesn’t think that buyers ever have the wool pulled over their eyes.
‘Bulk sales should be excluded from cost per thousand deals - and as a
major buying point, we have full access to the split ABC data that
breaks out bulk from paid-for sales. The majority of national press
business is traded against readership and if there is genuine abuse of
bulk sales then this will be reflected in the readership data.
The other big source of revenue for the nationals is direct response
advertising and if this doesn’t deliver the required response rates,
then the publishers don’t get a second shot.’
Ian Schoolar, the head of brand communications at the NatWest, says that
bulk sales are no more than a nuisance. ‘They are unhelpful from our
point of view,’ he admits. ‘You can tell when they’ve been given out on
a train because they end up littering the floor. I’ve never been
convinced that people read them. Publishers may think it’s important
from a hype point of view but, if everyone is doing it, doesn’t it even
out? As far as we are concerned, all that matters is the NRS.’