MEDIA FORUM: Should the tabloids stick with their editorial tone? - The Sun's new ad campaign in London seeks to reassure us it is still, well, The Sun. Are tabloids suffering an identity crisis, Alasdair Reid asks

There's no better time to be holier than thou than in the middle of

a Jihad. Or at least The Mirror thinks so, if you believe an ad that ran

in Campaign a couple of weeks back. Not only did the ad brag about the

fact that the paper has been running the odd news story but it also

accused The Sun of being a comic.



Tell that to the Daily Star, whose editor, Peter Hill, told Campaign

recently that he thought that both of his red-top rivals had lost the

plot and that even The Sun was betraying its heritage by becoming all

po-faced and serious. It's certainly true that the Daily Star has never

been so unrepentantly cheeky and trivial, but the truth in The Sun's

case is surely somewhere in between the Star and The Mirror. It seems to

be sober one minute, a right laugh the next.



It is true that there is a greater spread of tone and feel in the

red-top market at the moment than there has been in living memory. This

clearly offers readers more choice, but does the sector now send out

confused signals, not only to readers but to advertisers too? It's

surely difficult for tabloids, during these sober times, to mark out an

editorial tone for themselves.



Some observers believe that the war, or whatever they've decided to call

the whole business, was heaven-sent for tabloid newspapers. But the

circulation figures are more ambiguous - and The Sun clearly thinks its

sales need bolstering. Its circulation of 3,513,685 keeps it ahead of

The Mirror on 2,221,749 but it has lost some ground to its main rival

since 11 September.



The £1 million poster campaign, from TBWA/London, will run on six-

and 48-sheet poster sites in London and will remind Londoners that The

Sun is in tune with the concerns of the capital's citizens and reassure

them that it still caters for them in a light-hearted and accessible

fashion.



But do the tabloids face some tough challenges these days? Will they

have to rethink their products? Roland Agamber, the marketing manager of

The Sun, says that it is difficult for him to comment on editorial

issues, but he does think it's clear that the paper has been addressing

the news in a very Sun way. He states: "The editorial team led by David

Yelland has rightly been given accolades for its coverage. They've taken

an objective approach to the news and the paper has been very news

orientated but we always put The Sun angle on it."



From a marketing perspective, he maintains that circulations across the

market have continued to be buoyant. But he adds: "The advertising

market has been depressed so we have to be even more cost-efficient in

our marketing efforts. We've taken the view that you can take a

blunderbuss approach or we can take advantage of our mass audience

concentrated in the Carlton region. And we have to look at all the

marketing opportunities, mixing promotions with letting people know what

the brand proposition is. It's essential that people understand what we

stand for as a brand."



Greg Grimmer, a managing partner of Optimedia, says it's interesting

that some of the trade press advertising doesn't exactly concentrate on

circulation figures. And he doesn't think that the crisis offers many

sales opportunities: "I can't ever see The Mirror catching up with The

Sun again - whatever strategy it pursues. It's a clear strategy at the

moment though - 'We'll be the red top that covers the war

seriously'.



I'll bet the talk down the pub is still about what The Sun's been up to

on its front page. But, to my mind, if you want a serious newspaper then

why not buy The Daily Telegraph? And the thing about The Mirror's

strategy is that the further it takes its readers along this path, the

bigger the danger that it loses some off the top end to the Daily

Express and the Daily Mail."



Grimmer says advertisers don't seem to be particularly worried about

what sort of environment they might be going into when they contemplate

using tabloids. They're far more likely to be worried about advertising

full stop. "There were a lot of them saying that after 11 September but

now it's still a steady flow. It has become almost routine. It will be

interesting to see how long that goes on."



Alan Doyle, the communications manager of Volkswagen, says content and

news values are rarely at the top of his agenda when it comes to

considering media vehicles. He states: "The only discernible difference

I can see is in The Mirror. For the other guys it's business as usual.

The only arbiters of whether that's appropriate will be the readers,

who'll vote with their feet if they don't like it."



Marc Mendoza, Media Planning's managing director, agrees that

advertisers haven't become overly squeamish about content and the

environment in which their ads could potentially appear. He states: "If

advertisers have products to shift, they are going to be no more

discriminating than they have been in the past. I don't think they'll be

put off because there's a girl on page one rather than Afghanistan. That

said, if a newspaper is daft enough to paint itself into a corner then

it might regret it. I can't see that happening, though. Airlines might

be sensitive about what sort of content they might find their

advertising next to but I can't think of too many other examples."



That said, Mendoza believes that the tabloids are in a difficult

position. "They are not where people go for intelligent commentary on

events of this magnitude. The Sun and The Mirror have chosen different

paths but it is not their role to be serious newspapers."



Steve Goodman, the director of press at MediaCom, says it is good that

the tabloids are all plotting a different course: "People tend to

forget, though, that The Sun always offers serious coverage and does

things in some detail - albeit in a very different way from the rest of

the market.



You don't go to the tabloids for in-depth coverage over a long

period.



That's what the qualities are for. But the tabloids do have their own

value and it's interesting to see how many ABC1 readers turn to the

tabloids during this sort of period, precisely because they do offer

this different sort of coverage. In the shorter term, the tabloids

haven't seen the sort of sustained growth since 11 September that the

qualities have - but it's still generally true that newspapers sell more

on the back of bad news. It's great that there is real choice out there

for newspaper readers."



And perhaps, he adds, there's a clue to what advertisers really feel in

the revenue figures. "It's interesting that year on year, the Daily Star

is the one that has put on the most display advertising and it is the

paper that is the least sombre of the red-top tabloids," he concludes.



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