Media Perspective: Ignore the hype to gauge real state of consumer market

"A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure," Margaret Thatcher said in 1986. She may have been right but if she never took a bus in her thirties, she missed out on some interesting stuff. Last week, on the 220 back to Wandsworth after work, I spied an elegantly distributed range of objects (shopping trolley, trainers, whisky bottle) atop a bus stop. A not unfamiliar sight during the summer holidays when children have time on their hands to deposit rubbish in odd locations. This might have no relevance whatsoever to those of you with your own lovely, yet single-decked, transport but in magazine ABC week, a smuggled load of crap in a virtually inaccessible place seemed nothing less than a metaphor.

Just witness some of the ludicrous top-line circulation figures posted in last week's six-monthly consumer magazines ABC release, with the rather less flattering figures buried within mounds of data.

The celebrity and men's weekly markets provide great examples of how the publicity may not match the reality. Caveat emptor has never seemed so pertinent.

Here are the main offenders. Northern & Shell's OK! magazine, the second player in the celebrity weekly market behind IPC's Now, has a top-line circulation of 553,777. But just 459,065 of this circulation is actively purchased (at newsstands or through subscriptions).

In comparison, Now is 99.9 per cent actively purchased. Northern & Shell's New! and Star titles also make heavy use of bulk sales and OK!'s bitter rival Hello! is playing the same game.

The women's weekly market grew 4 per cent year on year based on top-line figures but this high number of bulk copies, which obviously have some value but a different value to those purchased at a newsstand, coupled with increasing use of discounted cover-pricing, show how tough this sector really is.

And while plaudits deservedly go to IPC Media and Emap Consumer Media for creating the men's weekly market, I have more than a suspicion that this has been artificially inflated with the massive use of discounted cover-pricing. IPC's Nuts has sold 53,861 copies out of every 290,337 of its average circulation at a lower rate (usually 50p) and almost half (87,232) of Emap's Zoo's average circulation of 200,125 is at the reduced rate.

Nothing wrong with this, they're all actively purchased sales. But you have to wonder how long they can sustain this discounting. Nuts and Zoo will be under pressure with two new entrants joining the market and while agencies trade off the January to June sales figures, the reality for the second half of the year may be more disappointing.

In general, the consumer magazine industry had a good six months but don't believe all the hype.