Bikinis, sunglasses, flip-flops, make-up, bags ... is there anything here to read?

It's not so much what's in it as what's on it when it comes to choosing a glossy. Tom Loxley on the rise of the freebie

Words may be cheap, but in the world of magazines some things in life are free. Namely the "aviator-style" GQ sunglasses that perch on the shelf above my desk, next to the pile of Maxim DVDs and Esquire CDs, beside the Loaded calendars and the thousands of FHM's "Sexiest Women", which along with the mints, the breath fresheners, the condoms and the Lilo - I kid you not - make up my stash of free stuff. None of it stolen, most of it untouched - I've opened the mints - and all of it acquired, given away over the years with copies of men's magazines.

Words may be cheap, but in the world of magazines some things in life are free. Namely the "aviator-style" GQ sunglasses that perch on the shelf above my desk, next to the pile of Maxim DVDs and Esquire CDs, beside the Loaded calendars and the thousands of FHM's "Sexiest Women", which along with the mints, the breath fresheners, the condoms and the Lilo - I kid you not - make up my stash of free stuff. None of it stolen, most of it untouched - I've opened the mints - and all of it acquired, given away over the years with copies of men's magazines.

Truly a Bodleian Library of cover-mounted man gifts but it's taken me a while to compile, and as the editor-in-chief of Maxim for four years I used to buy the lot. I keep the collection, of course, for purely professional purposes, apart from the Lilo which I take on holiday.

However if I was a consumer of women's glossies, I would have run out of shelf space a long time ago, not to mention wardrobe space too. This month alone the readers of women's glossies have the choice of the following freebies attached to the August issues: a beach bag (Glamour), a diet and fitness book (Marie Claire), a best-selling novel (Cosmo), a bag (Red), a sexy top and a make-up bag (New Woman), flip-flops (Elle), a designer T-shirt (In Style), sequinned flip-flops and matching sunhat (Eve) and a "sexy black bikini" (Company).

Which amounts to a whole lot of choice for newsstand waverers, but a whole lot of expense for publishers. So why do it?

"It's part of the price of competing," says Marie O'Riordan the editor of Marie Claire. "It's the cost of staying alive in a market where everyone else is promoting. Vogue are the only women's glossy that claims not to promote, although in reality with their fashion and shopping supplements they do."

Promotions can add as much as 50 per cent more to sales, which will help keep ABC figures high, so that publishers can charge more for advertising.

But the cost is high. The mass-market monthlies can easily spend more than £100,000 on a promotion, and for the really big circulation titles upwards of £200,000. Money they will rarely recoup in extra sales. A non-promoted issue that sells for around £3 will normally return £2 to the publisher to cover print, production, packaging, and overheads. Profits will be kicked into touch if he has to buy, say, half a million flip-flops and then shrink them to the front cover of his magazine.

More to the point the original reason for cover-mounting free gifts has long since gone. "When I was on More magazine in the early Nineties, when cover-mounting on women's magazines was just starting to get going, it was a very cheap way of marketing," says O'Riordan. "The idea was that it would encourage sampling among readers which in turn would lead to retention. And it worked. More's circulation used to go up 30 per cent issue on issue. But these days it's very hard to show retention.

"When we produced the first Elle bag in 1996 [a black bag with Elle printed on it] it seemed like a really fabulous investment. Not only did it add tens of thousands of extra sales but it was also a marketing man's dream. Readers were walking up and down the King's Road advertising the magazine. Eight years later the Elle bag hasn't done so well."

It's a sinking feeling that has been reflected in the men's market. What began in earnest in 1994 with FHM's "100 Sexiest Women" as a guaranteed way to add readers, soon spawned similar paper-based promotions across the sector, promotions which have more recently fallen foul of the law of diminishing returns.

Which is why men's magazines now ring the changes, offering more than just the traditional calendar or countdowns of women in a selection of improperly fastened bikinis/ underwear. Cue pick'n'mix selections from the sweetshop or the chemist, cue also DVDs of football highlights, comedy shows and even moon landings (although Jack's arguably niche offering of 100 minutes of moon landings was not enough to save it from closure last week due to disappointing sales).

But is the man or woman in the big chair supposed to be an editor or marketer? These days it's increasingly one and the same thing. In the men's sector the most successful promotions mesh perfectly with what the brand is about. They add value to the editorial package and are a bonus to the consumer. And, more to the point, are generated by the editorial team. FHM's "100 Sexiest Women" is a case in point, as is the Maxim Uncut DVD which featured the best bits of the magazine on film. The worst are merely something any other magazine could do.

For women's magazines, it seems that different rules apply. "By and large we haven't followed the men's market and gone with editorially-led promotions," says O'Riordan. "We offer the reader something free that they really want, but ideally we offer them something else as well. The cover can still make a difference. Our recent Victoria's Secrets issue was hugely successful. It had Victoria Beckham on the cover and came shrink-wrapped with a bag. The sales for that issue were significantly up year on year."

O'Riordan can't see a future without cover-mounting, and nor can anyone in the men's market. Readers and editors accept it's part of the editorial deal. Advertising and price-cutting may have bigger roles to play, but free stuff is here to stay. Which is good news for readers and the makers of flip-flops and DVDs. Not to mention "aviator-style" sunglasses, which, to be honest, are more Margate than Milan. But no one in publishing said the best things in life were free.

Tom Loxley was editor-in-chief of 'Maxim', 1999-2004

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