Bound and bagged: the only way to get your man

Tom Loxley
Mens monthly magazines
 
As
every sixth-form boy knows, when it comes to hiding something ugly,
bags have their uses. Pity the poor girl who fails to meet the
laughably high standards of the hairy Herberts in the playground
holding out for, say, a Brightlingsea Britney, because she will be
known as a “one bagger”. Her marginally less-easy-on-the-eye friend
might be a “two bagger”, while the young Michelle McManus lookalike
with a big voice, but an even bigger dress size, will be lucky to get
away with as little as three.

And as anyone who has ever walked into WHSmith knows, where
teenage boys go, men’s magazines follow. Although not, of course, to
the extent of putting ugly women in bags, which would, in many ways, be
madness.

No, the most significant thing about the men’s monthly
market in the past year is how all the magazines now routinely use
plastic bags or cardboard envelopes to hide their cover stars.
Significant because, of course, those very same stars tend to be
pursued relentlessly and expensively by the magazines in the first
place precisely because they are a sixth former’s wet dream.

Yet
in the past 12 months Maxim has been hidden in a bag 10 times, Arena
the same, Front nine times, Loaded and FHM six, while GQ and Esquire
have both gone for four packages a piece.

What exactly are they so keen to hide?

First up, flagging circulations.

Women’s
glossies have been propping up their sales figures with freebies since
the early 1990s, but for the men’s sector it is a relatively new
problem caused by the market peaking in 2001 and made worse by the
arrival of competition from the men’s weeklies last year.

Where
once a monthly might bung a bribe into a bag two or maybe three issues
in an ABC period, now they are doing it twice as often. And at huge
expense. Because by the time you have paid for the content, the gift,
the bag, the finishing and the transport, a medium-sized magazine with
a largeish print run will be spending more than £150,000 on each
promotion.

Considering the frequency with which publishers are
now using bags, this will murder profits and everyone knows what that
means for editorial budgets and jobs.

So why pay such a high price for, at best, very modest circulation increases?

To
disguise the true newsstand performance and so protect advertising
revenue is the truth, but also to salvage corporate pride and team
spirit. Yet it’s a hell of a price to pay as publishers try to wear
each other down in a war of attrition with the nightmarish conclusion
drawing ever closer – that if you covermount every issue you will end
up not adding value at all, but simply stacking up ruinous costs.
Bagged promotions are simply today’s bulk sales.

The result? No one can kick the habit. Bags are becoming the crack cocaine of the business.

Each
promotion may cost a fortune, but needs must if your ABC has reached
the point – as with at least one of the current crop of monthlies –
that the only issue sold on its own merits within the last six-month
period returned sales figures way under half of the headline figure.

Which
explains why month after month men’s monthlies are bagged with
calendars, DVDs, porn star supplements, books full of readers’
girlfriends in their pants, and supplements of all sorts and more.

But
if bags are a necessary evil in a battle to stave off inevitable
decline in circulation and ad revenue, then shrewd editors and
publishers can also put them to work in other ways. For bags offer any
number of cover-ups, almost all of which will work in a magazine’s
favour.

For a start, they can add valuable inches to your
newsstand presence (about two in fact, although as any man knows that’s
as good as six). On a crowded newsstand you cannot underestimate the
need to make your physical presence felt.

Equally, paid-for
promotions can be used to add weight to your package. Literally. Thus
GQ can loudly proclaim on its current bag, “three for the price of
one”, while boasting a House of Fraser-style supplement and Kurt Geiger
shoe guide that – oh lucky readers – come free with the March issue.
Which amounts to a whacking great package that physically holds its own
with the heavily bagged competition.

And away from the newsstands
the great cover-up offers opportunities too. Bags can hide your
blushes, not for the buyer who, ironically, will often be asked by the
newsagent if he wants a bag with that, but for the magazine. So Arena
offers up porno chic on a regular basis in its sex supplements urgently
sold on the bag with all the charm of the Reeperbahn, while keeping its
fashion base happy with the faces familiar to Hollywood and Milan on
its cover inside.

The
lesson? If you need credible cover stars who speak volumes for your
“brand”, but who will not sell masses of copies of your magazine, then
bag them because that way you maximise sales while retaining your cool.
The point being that PRs and advertisers don’t buy the magazines at the
newstands. They get them through the post, sometimes minus the
supplement and always minus the packaging. You might conclude they must
also never visit a newsagent, but that’s immaterial if they work in
Milan or Los Angeles.

Why else do you think Colin Farrell’s
appearance on the January cover of Esquire and FHM’s February cover
with Destiny’s Child, were concealed by a bag of lip-smacking Pirelli
Girls and adult entertainment actresses respectively?

Sure, it is
feasible both magazines could have had an embarrassment of riches that
month and simply tossed a coin and said “hell, let’s go with the
nymphettes”. Or perhaps they know pin-ups and porn stars sell many
times more copies than Irish leading men and black r’n’b outfits.
Because I bet your best Kurt Geigers they do.

Then there is the
fancy footwork of an altogether different order that means a sharp
editor planning a spoiler can exploit the difference between the cover
of the bag and the magazine cover mercilessly. So he will assure a
star’s agent that he won’t be compromising an exclusive cover shoot
agreement with a rival magazine if he is granted permission to run an
older shot of the same star in his publication. He promises he won’t
put it on the cover. Only to go and run it huge on the bag instead.

And
we should not forget the strictly one-off benefits of the phantom
promotion, as demonstrated by Front last autumn, when the magazine came
in a bag but without a bonus anything. But whether tricking the reader
into thinking they are getting something is any worse in the long run
than training him to expect something for nothing is an open question.
Surely there must be less destructive ways of giving a blast to your
sales without sidelining the magazine. After all this is the product
you are supposed to be selling.

Why not drop the price, as
magazines like Company and Marie Claire have done recently to great
effect? It seems no one in the men’s sector has thought of this sort of
promotion, so busy have they been dreaming up bags to bolster the ABC.
But then finding 10 compelling bagged freebies a year takes some doing.
Little wonder no one seems to have time to face up to the ugly
consequences. After all, you don’t look at the mantelpiece when you are
poking the fire. Any schoolboy knows that.

Tom Loxley is a former editor-in-chief of Maxim

Next week: Alison Hastings

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