Mags: Crazy covermounting culture

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?

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Talia Cain said...

I hate most cover-mounts. Although, I did love it when Marie Claire was giving a free dior mascara with an issue. That's useful and worthwhile. Also one mag used to give out free thongs around summer & they were so comfortable and fit me perfectly!

But I do hate the bags they attach especially when you see them featuring Chloe handbags on their pages and somehow expect their readers to get excited about a poor quality duffle bag.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Erica. I also fought against random covermounts in my tenure as a mag ed. It seemed to be that these incredibly highly-paid marketing people seem to think sticking a freebie on a cover is all their job is about. There's no analysis or creativity there.

I would love to see a GWAS post on magazine marketing. I have asked countless marketers what it is that they do and not one has ever been able to explain it to me!

livingsavvy said...

I have never been a big fan of the "gifts" that come with my magazine. Often they become another item to store or I feel guilty for adding to landfill. I look for magazines where I connect with the stories they are telling me and the information they are sharing with me.

Scarlett Harris said...

I agree with you guys. For the most part, cover mounts and freebies look messy on the newsstand, and coming from someone who used to be a checkout chick and had to constantly replenish the magazine supply, they're a bugger to organise and stack, and entise shoplifting. The only exception I find is if a mag comes with a free mascara - I'm a sucker for a free mascara, and all the mascaras I've used in the past two years have come with a magazine! I especially like when Madison comes with one - you get a quality product (Napoleon, ModelCo) with quality editorial.

Kate Moore said...

I also avoid mags that have "extras". They're usually poorly made and crappy stuff and because the mag is encased in plastic, all I am buying is more rubbish. I have a theory too that the editions with crap attached can be of poor editorial quality. It's a theory ... but has usually proved true, for me, at least.

Rochelle said...

Oh dear God, please let this be the end of covermounts! If anything, they turn me OFF buying a magazine.

99% of the time it's a useless, crappy item that goes straight into the bin, contributing to landfill and doing immeasurable damage to the magazine's brand.

I also hate that all that icky plastic makes it impossible to flick through before purchasing!

CA said...

What about the fact that many ACP magazines increase their cover price to actually pay for the cover mount?
That drives me crazy, and often stops me from purchasing, especially when you don't want the crappy thing that's been stuck on the mag anyway!

Anonymous said...

Hi Erica, in your post you said that Shop 'til You Drop doesn't use cover-mounts. I've noticed that they usually have an offer, like 15% off your next Kookai purchase or something like that. Is this different to a cover-mount? I know it's not a physical product but it's still used as a tactic to get consumers to hand over their hard-earned cash! Or do you think this is kind of acceptable because it's not contributing to land-fill (a concern that many other posters have pointed out) and because it links to their brand being they are a fashion/shopping magazine? :)

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hey anonymous,

Great point!

Again, I think it comes down to what enhances or diminishes your brand, and the true reader value.

From my point of view, I think discount cards affixed to mags and cover-lined discount offers (icky) cheapen a mag brand, but then SHOP is particular in its editorial offering, which essentially encourages us to, um, shop til we drop.

I don't know why more magazines don't mount a generic masthead card to their magazine (or make one available to order online through their websites) and upload different offers to it each month which readers can access/activate online... like a David Jones card without the credit line? That, to me, would resonate more, and present more value, than a land-filling 15% off at Shoebiz cardboard cut-out.


Anonymous said...

I have commented before on how much I dislike the freebies. If I want a new bag I will bag/mascara/thongs I will buy it. I did buy the Harpers Bazaar with the note book the other day because the country newsagent I went to didn't have much choice. I gave the note book to an 8 year old who loves to draw and she was thrilled ! The kids mags always have free toys that are rubbish and break after 5 minutes. I am one buyer who trys to avoid them unless desperate.

CA said...

Kitty, as a non highly paid marketing person who is responsible for a cover mount or two, I can't help but take offence at your comment. The success of a magazine is not just about the editorial offering and while there's some poor GWPs out there and they can be seen as buying circulation, there's also been some great, strategic premiums produced oer the last few years (and often attached to mags outside of the glossy territory). Any questions you'd like answered about marketing and what we do please fire away, I'd be happy to answer you.

C said...

I hate freebies with mag's that are wearable like T-shirts/bags/scarves/thongs etc. etc.... Who wants to wear/carry something that's the exact same as someone else who bought the mag!?

Also the sizing of these items "one size fits all" which usually means is uber massive or majorly tiny, it's never just comfortable on anyone!!

I prefer Cosmo's way of providing freebies- you get a card/coupon inside the mag that you can either take to a shop or send away for and then the item gets posted to you.

I also hate when you subscribe to a mag and the subscribers don't get the bonus gifts but the people who buy it in store do. I emailed Cleo about this last year and actually got sent a whole bunch of free stuff (above and beyond what was on the cover for that month) which was kind of awesome!

Make up or perfume freebies are good, though I prefer to have to collect it from a shop than to have it glued to my mag.

M said...

I heart this post. Covermounts are so annoying! You end up with some low quality crap you did not ask for, and most of the time the newsstand price increases so you have to pay more as well. Who came up with this idea? They really thought stylish and fashionable readers care for these dollar-store freebies?

bee said...

I agree with the sentiments about the crappy bags, t-shirts, thongs etc. But as a subscriber I sometimes get sad if I miss out on a quality freebie (such as a Dior mascara) simply because they don't need to lure me to make my purchase. It would be nice to be rewarded for being a subscriber also.

Anonymous said...

respectfully disagreeing with the majority. nowadays a good covermount is the only way i justify buying a mag. note the use of "good": the hb notebook & pencil was fab; the mc ultra-thin and oddly-shaped eco-bag was not. i barely have enough time to read the sunday papers & my o/s subs (us vogue, vanity fair, cookie *sob*), let alone bother with local ones unless i have further incentive.

Anonymous said...

You say that Vogue don't do cover mounts?
I'm pretty sure they had one 2-3 months ago. A rather nice cream/tan tote if I remember correctly. I usually don't go for such gimmicks, but I did look for that one & couldn't find any left. I guess it worked for them!

Anonymous said...

Wow, for the first time I'm feeling pretty isolated here! I actually like some cover-mounts although I will admite I am picky and I dont just buy a magazine for free junk (ie t-shirts, bags, glasses, scarves etc. I find these usally come with dolly/girlfriend which I dont buy, and sometimes madison etc, but once again, I rarely buy) And I'd never pick a magazine I dont like over one I do because something was attached to the front. Cost is another issue - I would much rather pay less for a magazine than get compulsory juhnk, but I assumed companies gave magazines these samples for free in order to advertise their product.

Some good covermounts I've gotten, a model-co lipstick/gloss which I thought was supurb and I ended up buying a three pack from Myer at Xmas. Also STYD came with a mini recipe book which has brought me some delicious and popular recipes for work! I got a mirenesse mascara that was actually good, but I guess I did inspect these items before my purchase, and I only bought the magazine because I liked it, the gift was just a bonus (like the free gym memebrships/ 20% off. You dont HAVE to use them) Same with the pull out tokens for samples from Myer etc. I must admit, I prefer if the product is related to the magazine (who wants free rice-cakes with a fashion mag?)