Media Forum: Will Desmond pay for Nazi comments?

Are advertisers likely to punish Express Newspapers for its proprietor's recent Nazi outburst, Alasdair Reid asks. He's a character and no mistake, that Mr Desmond. The Express Newspapers proprietor is the source of more tales than any press baron since the days when Robert Maxwell cast his gargantuan shadow the length of High Holborn. The one about his extraordinary performance at a recent meeting with senior Telegraph Group management (the two groups share ownership of a print plant) is clearly far from apocryphal.

Provoked by stories that the Telegraph Group is to be sold to the Berlin-based Axel Springer Verlag, Richard Desmond launched into a tirade about all Germans being Nazis, proceeded to goosestep around the room and then encouraged his staff to sing Deutschland uber Alles.

The irony of all of this is that Axel Springer, the German company's founder, now no longer with us, was a prominent anti-Nazi.

Small details such as this rarely impinge on newspaper proprietors; nor do groundswells of moral disapprobation, however widespread or strongly felt. What does tend to focus this sort of mind, however, is a widening hole at the bottom of the balance sheet.

Could some advertisers now seek to punish Desmond for his lack of judgment?

He's a funny chap, obviously, but is he now seriously beyond a joke?

Guy Phillipson, the head of advertising at the Anglo-German Vodafone, says that the company has given this issue much thought over the last week. For the time being, the Express Newspaper titles are not going to be removed from schedules.

He explains the reasoning: "There are two elements here - the personal and the business and, from the business point of view, we are solely interested in readership and how it fits in with what we want to achieve with our brands."

On the other hand, he points out, when all other considerations are equal, this sort of thing might make a difference. "If there had to be a choice between two titles offering similar audiences at a similar price, then other considerations such as feelings of negativity may come into play. And it has to be said that there will be people for whom those feelings of negativity may be huge," he states.

Rod McLeod, the communications manager at Volkswagen, tends to agree.

He states: "As far as our advertising goes, we try to come at things from a customer's viewpoint rather than what the media owner is doing. However, the way we pick our media channels has a lot to do with looking at the strength of the media brand."

McLeod clearly doesn't feel this incident has damaged the Express Newspapers brands much, though he concedes it has had an impact.

Oddly, Desmond has many fans on the media specialist side. For instance, one senior media company source says: "The truth is that there has been a tremendous sense-of-humour failure here. All the Germans I meet professionally are lovely but I think everyone knows they are different from us. They excel at all the things such as attention to detail that we're shitty at. In that respect, you can understand why some people still want to have a laugh at their expense."

This is slightly more than a bit of a giggle, though - however acceptable you think it is to be beastly to the Germans. On the other hand, Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of Media Planning Group, points out, if you have an over-refined sense of morality you might find it difficult finding any newspaper proprietor worthy of your support.

He says: "But that doesn't affect advertisers. Advertisers want readership and that's always going to be more important than whether they like someone or agree with them or not. In this instance, some advertisers might baulk at the Express but I doubt it will be an issue for the marketing people on the ground here."

Yet Mendoza adds: "I can imagine a situation where people at the head of a company get to hear of it over in Germany and object. But that sort of thing rarely happens."

So, is there a network dimension to this? Are bosses located at the headquarters of German multinationals likely to get involved? Jerry Buhlmann, the chief executive of Aegis Media EMEA, points out that no two advertisers are the same. Some are very centralised but many are decentralised and it remains an issue for autonomous national marketing operations.

Buhlmann can foresee longer-term issues. "From an advertiser point of view, the negative publicity effect is often short-lived - people tend to forget yesterday's newspapers almost immediately. A more important issue might be the effect his behaviour might have on the circulations of Express Newspapers."

- "Desmond is certainly someone who seems to attract negative feelings but his newspapers deliver an audience and we have business objectives for our brands. So we are not going to exclude titles because their proprietor has offensively racist views." - Guy Phillipson head of advertising, Vodafone

- "We are not too concerned here at Volkswagen. We are not reviewing our use of Express Newspapers but we are not a large user of its titles. Because we viewed this as just a one-off, we didn't review the situation." - Rod McLeod communications manager, Volkswagen

- "If German companies got together and pulled out of the Desmond newspapers, he'd love it. It would be right up his street. And it's not the sort of thing you can do quietly. It becomes obvious what's going on. It becomes an issue." - Marc Mendoza chief executive, Media Planning Group

- "If there is negative publicity that can have a negative effect on your desire to place advertising in that context. But the Desmond story really only appeared for one day and whether that is enough to have a large negative effect is debatable." - Jerry Buhlmann chief executive, Aegis Media EMEA.

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