MEDIA: FORUM; How will teen title guidelines affect advertisers?

Teenage magazines have bowed to Government pressure and agreed to develop a set of guidelines on content. How strict should they be? Are advertisers about to lose a valued editorial environment - a source of information that teenagers can trust, especially on sexual health matters? Alasdair Reid reports

Teenage magazines have bowed to Government pressure and agreed to

develop a set of guidelines on content. How strict should they be? Are

advertisers about to lose a valued editorial environment - a source of

information that teenagers can trust, especially on sexual health

matters? Alasdair Reid reports

It all began when Peter Luff, a member of Parliament, took to perusing

his ten-year-old daughter’s choice of reading matter. He didn’t much

like what he found in teenage magazines - articles discussing subjects

of a sexual nature, no less - and it wasn’t long before the Daily

Telegraph and the Daily Mail were whipping middle England into a frenzy

of moral outrage. It was only a few short steps to rabid radio phone-ins

featuring Disturbed from Dunstable worried that their teenage offspring

might be finding out about birds, bees and blow jobs.

Then came the inevitable questions in the House, the threat of

legislation and suggestions that (to paraphrase David Mellor’s famous

comment), teenage magazines were drinking in the Last Chance Milkbar. A

Home Office minister, Tom Sackville, was handed the task of giving the

main teen publishers - Emap, IPC and Attic Futura - a stern talking to.

It all caught the public’s attention, briefly, back in February. A CIA

Sensor survey recorded the fact that 41 per cent of adults agreed that

teenage magazines were too explicit, 13 per cent disagreed, with the

rest, presumably, being don’t knows. And the publishers felt even more

beleaguered when the Audit Bureau of Circulations ruled that there would

be no special dispensation for titles withdrawn from newsagents shelves

because they contained morally dubious editorial - this would still be

factored into the average circulation figure.

While middle England’s moral frenzy was dying down, publishers, editors

and the retail industry - it has to sell the magazines, after all - were

meeting Home Office officials who wanted some form of reassurance that

the morals of the nation’s children were in good hands.

Last week, the publishers, through the Periodical Publishers

Association, gave that reassurance. They rejected the notion of having a

formal age classification system for teenage titles - how could that be

policed by retailers? - but the PPA has now proposed a self-regulatory

structure by which formal bench-marks on content will be laid down.

Have the publishers given in too easily? Is there a danger that they

will be scared into making their titles bland and uninteresting? What do

agencies and advertisers think?

Louise Newton, the publisher of Attic Futura’s Sugar, says that

advertisers have a clearer understanding of the issue than the Home

Office. ‘There is certainly no problem as far as advertisers are

concerned - but then they actually know the magazines,’ she states. ‘No-

one wants out - in fact, more than ever, advertisers are clamouring to

come in. These magazines are all about the joie de vivre of teenage

life. Most people, including agency planners and the experts who have an

interest in this area, approve of what we are trying to do.’

Newton maintains that publishers are prepared to defend their magazines

ferociously, but they have no problems with the idea of guidelines. ‘A

lot of very positive things have come out of all this - like the fact

that the publishers have been working together. The general feedback has

also been interesting - it’s good to know what people think of us and it

has been heartening to see how much support there is for what we do.’

Martin Jones, a director of CIA Medianetwork, has a number of big-

spending clients in the teenage press. He hopes that the publishers

don’t overreact. ‘In the long run we’d be very much against any move to

make these titles bland and unadventurous,’ he states. ‘Record

companies, for instance, buy into them because they are sassy, have

attitude and attract more clued-up teenagers. I would hope that the

guidelines don’t go too far.’

He admits that he has found the whole business pretty bizarre. ‘It’s

ridiculous, really. It came from one man’s response to one letter in one

magazine. But the publishers have to watch it. It’s not a good idea to

have your magazine removed from the shelves, for whatever reason.

Advertisers want circulations to be as high as possible. All this

publicity hasn’t done any harm at all to sales, though - quite the


Chris Boyd, the managing director of IPC’s Southbank Group, argues that

the industry already takes the issue of sex advice very seriously. ‘We

don’t believe that there is a real problem here,’ he says. ‘I think that

the people who were making the most noise were often the most ignorant -

in some cases they were complaining about articles in magazines read by

18- and 19-year-old women. We are very aware that advice targeted at a

15-year-old should be written for people who are not in sexual

relationships and that the approach will be very different again for 13-


‘We have a good track record but we feel that it is right that we should

state formally where we stand and what it is that we do. We will, for

instance, make it very difficult for editors to make sex an issue for

younger age groups than it is currently is. But I don’t think that

advertisers should worry that the market will change out of all

recognition. There is a middle way between blandness and using sex

merely to boost sales.’

Charles Gallichan, the marketing director of the Health Education

Authority, favours self-regulation - anything to keep the politicians

from making unmanageable rules. ‘There have been lots of self-defeating

ideas around,’ he says. ‘For instance, putting an age limit on the cover

would immediately make a title attractive to the age group it is trying

to exclude. That would obviously be a backward step.

‘I have a lot of sympathy for the publishers and what they are trying to

do. Kids just don’t get the right advice on sexual health matters from

their parents or their schools. The publishers are a very responsible

lot and they have more understanding than most on where the different

age groups are at and what is appropriate for them. I don’t think it’s

likely, but I hope these magazines aren’t going to start erring too much

on the side of caution.’