Magazines: Babes, beer and breasts to the fore as lads mags play their own Euro 2004

Football is a godsend to 'Zoo' and 'Nuts' in their battle to capture a new niche of male readers. Tim Luckhurst reports

In the adolescent male fantasy world inhabited by IPC's Nuts magazine and Emap's Zoo, Euro 2004 presents a critical marketing opportunity. Football normally ranks high in the laddish quartet of babes, beer, cars and sport that dominate these titles, but this month it reigns supreme. Dan Cotton, the business manager of Zoo, says: "Euro 2004 is in the heartland of what we do. It is the predominant dialogue for young men throughout the country."

In the adolescent male fantasy world inhabited by IPC's Nuts magazine and Emap's Zoo, Euro 2004 presents a critical marketing opportunity. Football normally ranks high in the laddish quartet of babes, beer, cars and sport that dominate these titles, but this month it reigns supreme. Dan Cotton, the business manager of Zoo, says: "Euro 2004 is in the heartland of what we do. It is the predominant dialogue for young men throughout the country."

Zoo pushed its deadlines back by 24 hours last week so that it could include full coverage of England's defeat by France. Beside a topless, front-page puff for "Britain's 20 hottest new babes" and a tease for "real girls confess what they really want in bed", Zoo proclaimed "The tactics Sven must change" and promised to explain "How we can still win Euro 2004."

Nuts was more restrained. ITV's Kirsty Gallacher, proclaimed on the front page as the "world's sexiest football fan", was not topless. The IPC title had an exclusive interview with the England striker Michael Owen, conducted after the match, but chose not to promote it on the cover. It puffed a feature about mad referees instead. Nuts conveyed the impression that much of its coverage had been written before the crucial game. Will Aves, the press buying director of the media agency Zenith Optimedia, says, "Zoo changed its publishing date to capitalise on Euro 2004. It seems to be being a bit more creative than Nuts."

It needs to be. Emap's finance director, Gary Hughes, admitted last month that Zoo's circulation was trailing behind Nuts. Zoo, which launched in January, topped its first year circulation target of 150,000 19 weeks after hitting the shelves but Hughes admitted that Nuts had captured 60 per cent of the market. Now, says Mr Cotton, football has helped Zoo to catch up. "We have been pleased with the way our sales have gone. It is game on. We are neck and neck with Nuts."

David Wilding of the media agency Mindshare says: "In terms of overall sales, Nuts is doing best, but the gap is closing. It was 75,000 but it has narrowed." Mr Wilding says Zoo has made the most of Euro 2004. "I was out in Portugal last week and I saw the Zoo girls handing out copies. They claim to be trying to shift the testosterone away from violence to looking at girls, but whether that works or not it was certainly a valid marketing exercise. Young men seemed interested." Mr Wilding adds, "Nuts got off on the front foot this year but Zoo has been catching up in recent weeks."

Tim Brooks, the managing director of the IPC division that publishes Nuts, dismisses Zoo's claim to have reached parity as "complete bullshit". He insists that Nuts's commitment to football coverage shines forth from every edition of the magazine and insists that "it is no more vital this month than in any other". Mr Brooks is content to wait for August's ABC figures before discussing exact circulation, but insists, "Nuts has sold more copies at a higher price with less marketing spend than Zoo".

Both magazines have a cover price of £1.20. What Mr Brooks means is that Zoo is increasing circulation by handing out free copies. But promotional copies can be a worthwhile investment if the consumer is impressed. Mr Wilding says: "Zoo is achieving real sampling rather than just a temporary bulking up of sales."

Mr Aves says, "Zoo has been making noises in the market for several weeks. Until recently, they were quite upfront about admitting Nuts was bigger. They still admit it and I think Nuts will have a bigger ABC when the figures are released in August, but my impression is that there has been a shift. Nuts has been quiet. It was leading by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. I suspect it is 55 per cent to 45 per cent now.

It matters because, between them, Nuts and Zoo have already demonstrated the commercial value of weekly men's magazines. Mr Brooks says: "What Nuts does is high frequency, zero wastage and high volume. That combination is particularly attractive to advertisers who want to reach young men." Mr Aves says: "Any market that is selling close to 500,000 copies per week has vast appeal." But, he cautions, "We are not yet entirely clear about exactly who is reading these titles."

That will become clearer as audited circulation figures become available. But if Nuts and Zoo are attracting their target readership of young adult males with cash to spend, not just schoolboys, the importance of market leadership is plain. Media buyers say that when the titles were launched some advertisers fretted that their brands might be damaged by association. That concern is diminishing. Proving their potential to grab male attention during an event such as Euro 2004 will demonstrate that Nuts and Zoo have captured a lucrative niche.

After the first England fixtures, Zoo's upfront blend of breasts, breasts, football and more breasts appeared to be winning, but the war is not over. In the magazine market, there is a powerful correlation between marketing spend and sales. The view among media agencies is that IPC spent heavily on the launch of Nuts while Emap chose to spread its marketing budget for Zoo. But analysts warn against any assumption that IPC does not have more marketing resources in its locker.

Before the launch of Nuts and Zoo, weekly magazines for men were considered unlikely propositions. It is already plain that they have revived a market that was stagnant for a decade. In less than six months, they have gone from launch to a combined sale that should see both magazines reach profitability within projected timescales. There are 3.1 million 16- to 30-year-old men in Britain and there is scant evidence that many of them visit the magazine racks in search of profundity. The remaining question is whether they prefer the slightly lower nipple count in Nuts or Zoo's undiluted "brains in their trousers" approach.

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