MEDIA FORUM: Are glossy magazines insulated from recession? Are women's glossies recession-proof? A good theory but does the evidence, in the form of the latest ABC figures, support it?

It always used to be said that glossy magazines tended to do well during an economic downturn. Relatively speaking, of course. According to industry mythology, it was a phenomenon first spotted in the 30s and it has been revisited at the bottom of every economic cycle since, including the Gulf War recession of a decade ago. In the past, the evidence has been seen most clearly on the circulation side - where circulations in other sectors of the magazine market looked fragile the sales of glossy titles tended to be robust. And on the ad side, the suspicion is that, pro rata, glossies suffer less revenue pain than their more humble stablemates.

There are all sorts of theories about this. When times are tight, it's more important to fantasise - and where better to find fashion fantasy than in the pages of a glossy magazine? And there's always the suspicion that there has never really been a recession at the top end of the economy.

Spending patterns (whether the purchase of magazines themselves or the products featured therein) aren't deeply disrupted.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations figures released last week tend to bear much of this out. In all the fuss about Glamour beating Cosmopolitan it should be remembered that Cosmo didn't exactly fall off a cliff - its circulation was up 1.5 per cent period on period and 4 per cent year on year to 470,180.

And Glamour breaking the half-million barrier, posting a figure of 520,193, was just one among many success stories. Elle was the only real disappointment, but although it dropped 5.4 per cent year on year, it still increased slightly period on period. Company, riding high on cover price cuts, was up by almost 40 per cent year on year.

Which proves, surely, that glossy magazines are recession-proof. Well, actually, Stephen Quinn, the publishing director of Vogue, isn't so sure: "It's true that 2002 has been a fantastic year (in pagination terms). Throughout the year so far we've been down but we're seeing a new lease of life in the last quarter. It's a bit of a bore, actually, because we can't hide the figures from the bosses when we come to make predictions for 2003. We're not going to hit what we did last year but when you compare our situation to other media, we've certainly not been hit as hard. Frankly, we thought it was going to be a lot worse - we thought 9/11 would have an awful effect. And in the US it has impacted on the luxury goods market and the glossies are down over there."

But Quinn points out that Vogue dropped a lot of pagination in the recession of 1991 to 1993 and in fact there wasn't a true recovery until well into 1994. "If there is a downturn in retail spending we are affected. The affluent economy might be performing differently from the overall economy but if the affluent economy is down, we will be affected."

Claudine Collins, the press director of MediaCom, argues that recession is still in some respects more a fear than a reality. "If you look at general consumer spending in travel or the property market, it's crazy.

After 11 September financial advertisers pulled out, which badly affected newspapers but it didn't affect consumer magazines, she says.

Collins also agrees with the theory that in uncertain times, people don't necessarily seek out more grim reality in their reading matter. But she points out that that are some more mundane reasons for the good figures. "Glamour is a fantastic product and that's why it's such a success, but the success has been helped by the £10 subscription offer.

Company has had cover price cuts. And everyone's still doing covermounts. People go in and search the news-stands for the best giveaway they can get and it's costing the publishers a fortune. Everyone's scared to stop doing it. IPC said it will stop covermounting if everyone else does but no-one's listening. But that does not take too much away from the overall picture. "Advertisers are generally happy, she concedes.

Are they? David Allen, the marketing director of Coty, seems to be. "Yes, we're very pleased to see that the fashion and beauty magazine market is buoyant and going forward. It reflects what we're seeing in the beauty market generally. We've been seeing growth rates well over 10 per cent duringthe past six months, in fact for a year. I think what we're seeing overall is an interest in new things, new products. There's a need to feel good about yourself and that's reflected in the circulation figures. What about the theory that glossies provide emotional sanctuary in uncertain times? There's something in that, he agrees. "Price has a part to play - and it's the same with lipstick. £3 is not too much to pay for a treat. It's not an over-indulgence."

But should advertisers be worried about how promotionally driven the magazine market is these days? "Whether you are talking (cover) price or gifts, it is an expensive investment, but it's a commercial decision they've been making, and as long as it drives more people to read the magazines we advertise in, then it's something we support."

But it's something that worries Laura James, the media director of PHD. "Over the past few months it has virtually been possible to get your whole summer wardrobe from covermounts. That's an expensive way to drive circulation, especially as it doesn't necessarily build loyalty.

People don't look at the brand, they look at the gift. And anyway, if a glossy magazine puts a pair of flip-flops on its cover what does that say about that glossy magazine brand?"

Tess Macleod-Smith, the group publishing director at The National Magazine Company, tends to agree about covermounts - they've been getting out of control. "My view is that during a downturn, people go for quality above quantity. Our aim with Harpers & Queen is to make it a necessity, not just a luxury. From an advertising point of view if you're in luxury or fashion it's essential you buy the right environment and reach the type of people who can actually buy your products, she states. "But as for covermounts, they have become like a drug for some publishers. Once they've started they have to keep doing it just to keep circulation going. We have certainly tried to resist that idea."

The style guru Peter York seconds that view. Interestingly, though, he thinks that glossies are far less recession-proof than they were - or at least, the market is getting a lot more complex. "When I was at Harpers & Queen in the 80s that was certainly our argument - that readers were so well off that they weren't affected. But now, the 'apparently rich' is a far bigger total universe and the old social patterns have become all mixed up. Because it's a bigger universe it's much more volatile and much more vulnerable. I think publishers have to be a lot more clever than they were before."

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