What’s going to be the motivating reason that will drive magazine readers into parting with their cash this month? Superb reportage? Brilliantly sparkling writing? Awe-inspiring pictures? Gritty investigative journalism? Or a handbag?
A handbag? Just as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell gave disdainful voice to her views on the unconventional cot where baby Ernest was discovered at Victoria station, so should editors react to the notion that the journalism within their lovingly-produced glossies is less important than a tacky piece of Taiwanese plastic stuck to the front. At least the object of Lady B’s approbation would have been made of sturdy leather.
Yet the covermount’s power in the magazine world is more potent than ever. Right now you can take your pick of anything from Eve’s little black bag, She’s eye gel and B’s halter-neck top to Glamour’s make-up purse. And its insidious influence is spreading beyond the realms of the women’s glossies. The men’s market is already under threat: hence GQ’s free ‘aviator-style’ sunglasses and Esquire’s playing cards last month.
Newspapers are beginning to feel the pull too: Saturday’s Times will include a CD which, says its gushing marketing blurb, "pushes out the boundaries of newspaper promotions".
It joins the Telegraph and the Guardian, which regularly include covermounted CDs in their weekend packages.
Where does it end? It ends, as anybody from women’s magazines will tell you, in a dark hole known as the Gift Pit. Having fallen into it, a publisher finds itself spending more and more on covermounts and getting less and less for its money. Less growth. Less reader loyalty. Less confidence that the editorial product is strong enough to speak for itself.
Women’s magazines spent 30 per cent more on free gifts last year. And got back 3 per cent growth for their £30m. In Spain, so deep is the pit that a brief industry-wide covermount moratorium led to 30 per cent drops in sales.
Some publishers – such as Dennis Publishing’s Andy Semple – are so wary of falling into the Gift Pit they are desperately trying to scramble away from its edge. Semple wants all publishers to sign up to a covermount amnesty for men’s magazines.
Those who disagree with him – and those new enthusiasts in the newspaper industry – might do well to remember another pit. The one in Greek mythology protected by Cerberus. That five-headed Demon of the Pit, covermount advocates should note, permitted new spirits to enter the realm of the dead.
But allowed none of them to leave.