During a Mediaweek podcast earlier this year, Mia Freedman shared an hilarious anecdote illustrating the crazy heights covermounting had risen to during her tenure as editor of Cosmopolitan.
Cooky girl she is, she put on all the freebies she'd collected from British magazines over the period of one week, including a sarong, bikini and thongs, then presented herself to publisher Pat Ingram, who assumed her crazy attire was just another passing fashion trend. Her point being, of course, to demonstrate just how out of control the practise of affixing freebies to the covers of magazines had become. Freedman remains staunchly anti-covermount, as does Cosmopolitan.
"Covermounts are the crack cocaine of magazines," she told Mediaweek. "They're the fastest way to erode your brand. It's an absolutely farcical way to prop up your circulation... so that you can keep your ads up. But you don't know what your readers want; you don't learn anything about what you've put on the cover... it's like, what they want is a hair straightener. Okay, are we a cosmetic company, are we electrical goods manufacturers or are we a publishing house? Covermounts are something I fought against all the time. I hated them."
All this talk yesterday about ACP Magazines getting back to basics with a renewed focus on producing quality, sustainable editorial rather than resorting to artificially boosting quarterly sales figures with tip-on freebies has got me thinking about covermounting culture. Is this a death knell for the one-upping competition that sees newsagents turn into glorified Crazy Clarks stores and editors become sideshow spruikers? And will publishers be able to ween readers off covermounts now they've become a normalised part of the magazine purchasing experience?
In stark contrast to the recession and eco-friendly mentality pervading the glossies, which tells us to be more thoughtful shoppers in response to the rabid global consumer culture that brought about the GFC, over the past six months I've acquired more than a few bags (tote, beach, duffle, shopping), cosmetics purses, a notebook and pencil, mascara, lipgloss, nail polish, a mini hair straightener, a scarf, a t-shirt, chocolate, a pedometer and sticky notes, all thanks to the generosity of our mainstream women's magazines, including marie claire, Harper's BAZAAR, Madison, Cleo, InStyle, Dolly and Girlfriend.
"You can go into a newsagent and you see who's not selling: every magazine with a covermount isn't selling," Freedman told Mediaweek. "Everyone's addicted to it but, ultimately, it's terrible for the industry and it's terrible for the brands because suddenly nobody wants to buy Dolly unless there's a hair straightener or an iPod... At a time when staff are being laid off and budgets are being cut and editors are doing it so tough... it's insulting to the very talented journalists and people who work on magazines."
Indeed. I've likened magazines who use covermounts to the girl at school who has to buy her friends with gifts, so lacking in confidence is she of her ability to secure a loyal, authentic relationship by just being herself. To my knowledge, Vogue, RUSSH, Frankie and SHOP Til You Drop aren't in the habit of covermounting, yet their circulation figures are relatively healthy.
In the U.K., where covermounting is even more rampant, using tip-ons can lift magazine sales of some women's monthlies by up to 200,000 additional copies an issue. According to Mediaweek, Cosmopolitan registered sales of 647,796 for its July 2009 issue, thanks to a cover price reduction (from £3.30 to £2) and a free chick-lit novel, while average sales for the first half of 2009 were 441,683. The July issue of U.K. Glamour gave away a free mascara, which boosted issue sales to 745,133 copies and average monthly circulation for the first half of 2009 to 526,245.
But not all covermounts are created equal. Tip-ons run the gamut from advertiser product sampling to worthy charity collaborations, sample mags, cheapie branded items from China, and in-house produced one-shot books, magazines and calendars. Over the years, I have enjoyed Vogue's bonus business style magazines and Harper's BAZAAR's L'Oreal Paris sponsored fashion supplements. I also adored Frankie's gift wrap book, containing paper designed by the magazine's arty collaborators, which felt like a real bonus and further extended the magazine's positioning as the quirky creative title du jour. Though these projects mean a lot of extra work for the editorial and design teams – if not the in-house creative services department charged with producing them within the magazine's style guidelines – it's these covermounts that have the ability to enhance a brand and create consumer loyalty – the kind of loyalty advertisers love.
This month's Inside Out magazine comes with a mini 'Decorators' Secret Handbook', which has been lovingly compiled by staff in-house. The book taps into the magazine's little black book of design industry contacts and invites readers to share in the knowledge. The layouts are in keeping with the magazine's style, no sub-editing expense has been spared and there's something new to learn or discover on EVERY page. Freebies like this one, created in a spirit of generosity and excellence, leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about the magazine – and the covermount sponsor, Yellow Pages.
It is immensely disheartening to slave away on what you believe to be a stellar issue of your magazine only to be trumped at the newsstand by a competitor with an amazing freebie. Because consumers are time-poor and likely to be lured by what seems to be a value-for-money gift, they may be missing out on a truly rewarding magazine reading experience because of the crazy covermounting culture created by publishers.
There's definitely merit in the idea that a freebie might encourage a mag-stand browser to trial a title and return to it the next month because they enjoyed the content. But if magazines are to create the kind of genuine, meaningful relationships they pride themselves on (and sell themselves to advertisers and media buyers on), while staying true to the eco-friendly values they espouse, they need to allocate more time, effort and resources towards marketing themselves from the inside out, creating the kind of intimate, exciting, rewarding reading experiences that draw people to them every month, rather than cheapening themselves with pointless tip-ons. Covermounts need to become the icing-on-the-cake exception rather than the rule. But will mags be prepared to suffer overall circulation drops to correct the topsy-turvy tip-on craziness?
Girl With a Satchel