Media analysis: Newspapers question the power of television

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The Independent Culture
IN 1998 national newspaper groups ploughed pounds 73m into television advertising, but it might be time to ask: how much is a TV advertisement worth to a newspaper?

This newspaper has just begun a substantial television advertising campaign. The Independent has plenty to shout about: new sections, a cluster of awards and a year-on-year increase in sales for the first time in three years.

But many newspaper executives are now asking whether television advertising is the most cost effective way of improving sales.

A number of factors conspire to make newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, among the most expensive products to put on air. The first thing is the short-term nature of most newspaper advertising campaigns. TV companies have advance booking, or AB, deadlines around six weeks ahead of transmission date. After this date you pay a premium to get on air, and the closer your required broadcast date the bigger the premium.

Because most newspapers run advertising to support individual promotions - giveaway tickets, holidays, books for schools or whatever - they will not often know what those promotions are to be until the last moment. Some weeks, the media buyers for a newspaper group will not be instructed to enter the airtime trading market until a week or even a few days before they want the ad to air. This explains the increasing use newspapers are making of radio, because ads there can be turned around very quickly. More than once TV ads have been made from scratch at lunchtime on a Friday and broadcast that same night.

The other addition to a paper's TV advertising costs is the Friday-night squeeze. The prevailing wisdom is that readers have little time to read and make use of promotions in the week. On Saturdays and Sundays there are bigger papers, and more leisure time in which to read them. But that means newspapers all piling on to C4, ITV and to a lesser extent C5, trying to buy around programmes watched by a young, metropolitan audience. They don't want to share an ad break with the others and so they pay through the nose for their place in the schedules. The premium newspapers pay to get on TV, compared with other types of goods, can be more than 50 per cent - in other words they get 50 per cent less advertising for their money. Only cars during the summer car-buying times, and alcohol brands around football matches, have to stump up so much extra to get on air.

And where does this get newspapers? It is very difficult to measure the effect of long-term, brand-building advertising campaigns. They change perceptions in cinemas, on radio and on posters, over periods that take years. But the immediate boost from a quick, promotional ad campaign is fairly easy to quantify.

Last month The Sunday Times, which spent pounds 4.7m on TV last year, helped boost its average sales figure when it advertised a millennium part- work offer on TV. This would have raised sales by around 20,000 at a cost of pounds 200,000 over the weekend. The Observer, which advertised heavily in January, eased off its spending to just one weekend and saw its sales average fall by 13,000 month on month. The weekend it did advertise, its sales would have been closer to 430,000 than the 406,000 they came in at. Last year The Observer spent pounds 1.1m on TV advertising - a quarter of The Sunday Times' budget.

In the tabloid market, TV advertising seems to pull in a bigger sale than for broadsheets. The tabloids can get a 100,000 lift from a really good promotion, and spending pounds 300,000 over a weekend is not unusual.

Associated Newspapers is the biggest spender and last year put a whopping pounds 18.8m on air just for its Mail titles. A recent BA half-price offer would have cost around pounds 400,000 in airtime, but it had promotion tokens in the Saturday Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and Monday's London Evening Standard.

But what happens in both the broadsheet and tabloid markets is that heavy promotional advertising fails to retain readers. Perhaps cumulatively the Mail titles have benefited from almost non-stop promotional advertising, but for most newspapers, readers come to expect giveaway offers every day. And newspapers need them too.