BUSINESS

The knock-off game

Magazine readership surveys have spawned a wave of look-alikes

KATHERINE MACKLEM March 27 2006
BUSINESS

The knock-off game

Magazine readership surveys have spawned a wave of look-alikes

KATHERINE MACKLEM March 27 2006

The knock-off game

BUSINESS

Magazine readership surveys have spawned a wave of look-alikes

KATHERINE MACKLEM

Just days before a new fashion insert was to run earlier this month in the Toronto Star, the paper’s fashion editor Bernadette Morra received a cease-and-desist letter from a Toronto law firm. On behalf of St. Joseph Media, publisher of Fashion and Toronto Life magazines, among other titles, the lawyers claimed that advertisers and customers would be “misled and confused” by the new publication. Morra was taken aback. “This is an eight-page broadsheet—it’s not a magazine,” she says. “It shows how nervous and how easily threatened they are.” Morra ignored the letter, and the Star published the insert.

St. Joseph isn’t alone—much of the magazine industry is jumpy. The backdrop to publisher paranoia is a marketplace teeming with largely indistinguishable titles. For instance, celebrity weeklies abound, all with similar logos of white letters outlined in a bright colour. Weekly Scoop, with unflattering shots of Katie Holmes, Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie on its cover, is a Canadian offering, published by Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. Apart from Canadian content in an Olympic story and a piece on pet boutiques in Canadian cities accompanying a two-page spread of stars such as Ashlee Simpson and Jane Fonda and their four-legged loves, the pages of Weekly Scoop are tough to tell from those of U.S. magazines such as People and Us Weekly. A typical newsstand also features Inside Entertainment, Movie Entertainment and Entertainment Weekly. For publishers, millions in ad dollars are hanging in the balance because customers are confused by the glut of lookalike magazines. Some think that’s the point.

The problem for publishers with look-alike

covers has to do with the way readership is counted. Each spring, the Print Measurement Bureau releases results of a two-year survey. It includes not only readership numbers, but also incredibly detailed information about consumer habits. The data is so detailed and the survey so large, the bureau claims it represents the entire Canadian population, says Steve Ferley, PMB’s president. It also is a definitive tool for ad buyers. “PMB is hugely credible and extremely important,” says Sunni Boot, a media buyer and president of ZenithOptimedia. “It is a golden standard tool.”

In 2000, PMB changed the way it asked people about their reading habits. It used to show actual magazine issues to readers, asking if they’d read that particular one. “It was getting too cumbersome to show each magazine once we reached more than 80 titles,” Ferley says. Instead, readers are now shown just magazine logos, and asked which they’ve read recently. One result of the new method was confusionreaders thinking they’d read one magazine when in fact they’d picked up another. As advertising rates go up in proportion to a magazine’s readership, incorrect numbers can be a boon to smaller, less-read publications. And in the confusion, some publishers saw an opportunity. A good title or cleverly designed logo can boost survey results substantially, as when ROB Magazine changed its name in 2002 back to Report on Business, and its PMB numbers shot up immediately.

Boot agrees the PMB survey may have contributed to a proliferation of look-alikes, but she plays down the impact on ad buyers. “No research methodology is perfect,” she says. That doesn’t stop the industry from worrying. For St. Joseph, the Star’s new insert is seen as an infringement of its Fashion trademark. For now, the company hasn’t taken further action, says Giorgina Bigioni, group publisher of women’s magazines at St. Joseph, although the lawyers from both sides are talking. M