I only read it for the Cokes and condoms

Free gifts sell magazines - statistics prove it even if the punters deny it. Julie Aschkenasy on the cover-mount revolution
Go to your local newsagent. Peruse the shelves.The magazines are battling for your attention. And they want it now.

Here's how. A trip to WH Smith this week unearths the following assortment of gifts attached to all manner of magazine to tempt a purchase: a small fishing net, lamb and rice dog food, a bottle of Baby Savlon lotion (full size), the Natural Born Killers film script and Walter Moseley's novel White Butterfly. BBC Music offers not just one CD but two. Gamepro, a computer glossy, comes with a free edible lolly containing a worm.

This month's piece de resistance comes from the music magazine Select, whose marketing department has spent 18 months "kicking around the box" - meaning the latest issue is packed in a bespoke washing-powder box containing a chocolate Twirl, can of Tango, Nik Nak snacks and a Blur scratch card. Emap Metro has also relaunched its ailing title Raw. It is gimmicky, innovative and looks more than a little out of control.

Or is it? With the current market so promiscuous, more than 2,000 titles compete for space: marketing departments must become more inventive to attract readers. A cover-mounted issue with a desirable freebie can sell up to 40,000 more copies than a non-promoted title, says Margaret Haffernan, Emap Metro's marketing manager. It is a tactical decision, planned well in advance, in an effort to grab more of the market share between titles that are in competition. There is an increase in the youth market, where competition is particularly fierce, and the men's market, where new players compete for sales.

Ms Haffernan says it is still relatively straightforward to break into the youth market. "You know that if you spend pounds 100,000 on posters and postcards, pop mags will sell very well," she says.

Readers of upmarket titles are not so easily beguiled. "When FHM entered the market in 1994, we put out a jazz cassette for the first month, then a PJ O'Rourke book the next. They sold well, but the next month sales picked up because we got the cover right. If we don't add 110 per cent extra value for serious readers, it's not worth doing and it doesn't work." Indeed, Q magazine has a strategy of putting out three or four quality CDs each year, and spends pounds 500,000 a year cover mounting.

GE Publishing, which produces Inspirations and Decorated Home, always cover mounts as policy. "We only give away related products like stencils, stencil brushes. Certainly circulation increases," says Becca Watson, GE's associate publisher. "There are so many titles that there is not the loyalty there once was. Free gifts sway the casual buyer in the homes market, as will a thicker mag. There is a lot of greed around."

WH Smith confirms that cover mounts sell magazines, with sales increases from a few to double percentage points. Jane Acklam, marketing communications manager, has seen everything from cans of Coke to condoms. "All we ask is for publishers to exert common sense. BBC Gardeners World gave away free trugs so big they had to be stacked up on the floor."

Ms Haffernan says it is the supermarkets, the newest players in the retail market, that exercise the most control. "They control shelf space and account for every bit," she says. "If a magazine is not a standard size, they give us a bollocking."

Innovation, says John Wiseby, publisher of Esquire, is essential to stay ahead of the game. "We are exploring third-party relationships," he says. "If we develop a music product, it would be logical to cross- promote with a music retailer, giving double exposure." This would mean that you could buy your magazine with CD from WH Smith or, depending on how you view it, your CD with magazine from a display stand at a record shop. Esquire's policy is to promote only strong issues, and then with a product that is closely related to the content - a comedy cassette with a comedy profile or a CD-rom when there is a technical spread.

What do the punters think? Paul, a 29-year-old accountant, likes extra value: "I would be more likely to buy if it had something substantial, like a book. I buy computer magazines if they have free games." Tina, 34, a PA, agrees: "I buy Sainsbury's magazine because you get your money back in coupons." Alan, 36, a musicians' agent, is more wary: "I would only be influenced by a freebie if it was useful. If I'm taking a train journey, I would be tempted by a book of short stories. But mostly I just throw them away."

Well, the freebies are not always useful. "I have this vision of pissed magazine money men going off after lunch to do deals with sweet manufacturers," laughs Rod Sopp, advertising director of the Face and Arena. "Maxim magazine has a CD-Rom that needs the latest technology to play it, which we don't have in this office. It's the equivalent to the poncey beer of the Nineties." This is the cult attitude to freebies: refuse to compete, buy the product for editorial excellence and good design. Or is it? After all, even the Face gave away a club guide this summer, joining the something-for-nothing culture. Mr Sopp shrugs. Sometimes the inevitable has to be accepted.