Advertising challenge to power of the press

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PATRICIA DUFF, the Hollywood socialite and hostess, was described in September's US edition of Esquire as 'a fearsome mix of power and sexual politics'. Unfortunately her boyfriend didn't like it. And, because Ron Perelman is chairman of Revlon, the cosmetics company, he was able to retaliate immediately - by stripping all Revlon advertising from any title belonging to Hearst, the offending publisher.

Perelman, described in the same article as 'baldish' and 'cigar-chomping', is well cast in the role of the hard-nosed tycoon. With an estimated personal fortune of dollars 5.9bn ( pounds 3.7bn), and a growing status in Hollywood where he has 'pals' like Don Johnson, he likes his huffs to be noticed.

So Hearst, which has a UK subsidiary, the National Magazine Company, publisher of Cosmopolitan, will suffer to the tune of perhaps pounds 5m a year worldwide in lost advertising.

But Revlon suffers, too. There are a limited number of quality glossy magazines on the regular circuit for reaching the company's key audience. Take away the Hearst titles, and the strategy becomes less effective. Even rivals concede this point. Stephen Quinn, publishing director of the competitor, Vogue, says: 'A magazine like Cosmopolitan is a big title with a big circulation, right at the heart of the Revlon brand.' According to one advertising agency, Revlon is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

So why do it? Is it just a power play to frighten the fainthearted? Or a continuous menace that makes publishers cower at the approach of the cantankerous client?

Mr Quinn found himself at the centre of an advertisers' crisis in October 1992, when a discounting advertisement from Superdrug was refused by all the leading women's glossies on the ground that 'it would upset their relationship with the big perfume houses'.

The publishers have always claimed they simply did not want to muddy their own exclusivity with cut-price products. But Superdrug contends they were being leaned on by their most powerful advertisers.

In 1987, Express Newspapers began a two-month joint venture with David Sullivan, the publisher of the Sunday Sport, in a bid to breathe new life into the Daily Star. Mr Sullivan's editor, Mike Gabbert, relaunched it as what an Express source called a 'bonking paper' that heaved with innuendo and D-cups.

A group of large retailers, led by Tesco, acted immediately and withdrew all their advertising from the Star in a move estimated to cost the paper pounds 1.3m. The reason given by Tesco was 'disquiet at the attitude of the paper towards women'. Tesco claimed it was not a 'moral crusade' but a commercial decision. In any case, it hardly mattered. In seven weeks, Mr Gabbert was gone and the paper returned to some normality, though faced with a prolonged and expensive struggle to regain lost circulation and disaffected advertisers.

It had been a disastrous move all round, but it was advertising muscle that swung the decision by Express Newspapers to break with Sullivan.

Naturally, advertising sales directors will claim they are not in thrall to their big advertisers, despite the huge sums spent.

Len Sanderson, ad sales director at the Daily Telegraph, says friction is usually down to a mistake. He remembers one thoughtful feature on crematoria some years ago, which found itself in the embarrassing position of facing an ad for Spry Crisp 'N' Dry.

Sleazy or not, it is not the advertiser's place to impose its views on a newspaper. Andrew Brown, director-general of the Advertising Association, says: 'It's important that when an issue causes public outcry, advertising is not used as a punitive sanction to stop journalists writing what they want to.'

During the affair that saw the Daily and Sunday Mirror publish pictures of the Princess of Wales exercising at her gym, Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, called on advertisers to boycott the Mirror - a call that Mr Brown regarded as allowing advertisers to be hijacked by the Establishment.

Companies should be free to opt out, but not to blackmail, he said.

(Photograph omitted)