MEDIA: FORUM; Should advertisers heed NI’s bulk sales warning?

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?

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

market currency.

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

the habit?’

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

marketing armoury.

‘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.’