Putting a gloss on it

'Bulking', the magazine industry's dirty secret, is just a way to inflate sales figures, says Anthony Noguera

I am at Heathrow airport - in British Midland's economy herding area, to be exact - about to board a packed plane to Palma. I have paid a very reasonable £12.50 for my ticket. Others on the flight have paid less. I am transfixed by the scene taking place in front of me, as a late-middle-aged woman in a gaudy velour lounge-suit greedily and desperately grabs handfuls of magazines off a display signposted (somewhat superfluously, considering the ungainly scrum in front of it) "Please Take".

There is something terribly British about the whole affair - we're so used to being ripped off at every turn that put a sign saying "free" over any old rubbish, and people will tear each other's limbs off to get a share. I couldn't help but notice that the woman ended up bagging six copies of the same magazine, and joked with her, "They don't get any better, you know, no matter how many copies you take!", but she looked at me like a flat-earther for not joining in. The magazine she was so desperate to own? Not Chat. Not Saga. Not Woman's Own. Not even Take A Break. No, it was the upmarket monthly for older men, Esquire.

What I saw that day at Heathrow was the sharp end of a growing and particularly blunt marketing and sales-figure-inflating strategy known as "bulking". These unloved magazine bastards are thus known in the industry as "bulks". Or "samples". You might, rightly, call them "freebies".

Indeed, with last February's publication of the industry's biannual sales figures (colloquially known as the ABCs, short for Audit Bureau of Circulations), it became clear that there were a hefty 1.5 million bulk/free copies given out across the main magazine market sectors. The women's celebrity market is easily the worst offender, with OK!, Now and, to a lesser degree, Hello! sending out 159,000 copies a week, or more than four million copies over the previous six months. Women's lifestyle and home-interest sectors are also heavily bulked. Between them, Harpers & Queen, Tatler and Vanity Fair send out 73,000 bulks and (largely) free copies each month, that's 28 per cent of their combined total circulation. Upmarket men's titles aren't exempt either, with 33 per cent of Esquire's circulation not actively purchased, 14 per cent of GQ's, and 19 per cent of Wallpaper*'s. (A possibly apocryphal tale even tells of a former Eastern European Bloc stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of copies of the unsurprisingly now defunct Melody Maker.)

But who cares? Well, advertisers, for one. Especially since the distribution of these free copies has long since passed from being a justifiable and occasional sampling exercise into an advertiser-funded way of camouflaging a title's inadequacy on the news-stand. The ABC figures, next published on 12 August, are seen as a definitive barometer of a magazine's health. Unfortunately, with the ramping up of many magazines' bulks, what was for years an occasional marketing tool has since become the most obvious fix in the UK auditing system, leaving the ABCs open to spectacular levels of abuse.

Encouragingly, some key media agencies are already wise to the ruse. "Bulks should be taken off the ABC all together," says Dan Pimm, head of press at Universal McCann. "The only purpose they serve is to hide a particularly poor circulation figure. They are of no benefit to the advertiser, yet we continue to see magazine sales reps bigging up their headline circulation, and then having to invent spurious reasons to explain why they've needed to dump 10 per cent or more of that figure in waiting- rooms around the UK."

Even Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, recently declared that free magazines were worthless. "If you give people something for nothing, you are saying that it has no value whatsoever," he insisted, "because there's no active purchase involved." Ironically, GQ gives away 200,000 free (hence "worthless") copies annually.

The giving away of magazines is a time-honoured way of sampling new readers, and several titles from Emap (the company that publishes Heat, Closer, FHM, and pays my mortgage) undertake sampling activities. The best examples are Closer, which pioneered the "sampling at launch" technique, and Zoo. Sampling has been one of the key drivers of the circulation success of both titles, but both accept that it is a short-term device. Brand strength builds loyalty. Indeed, Emap does not include any free magazines in its audit figures.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for any other publisher, and, in truth, free bulks have nothing to do with sampling and everything to do with shoring up a soft set of ABCs.

When pushed, serial-bulkers always insist that their freebies "go to BA first class", yet the true destinations for these publishing versions of unwanted stepchildren are somewhat less glamorous. During 2003, Esquire gave away almost 300,000 copies at hair salons, doctors' and dentists' surgeries, on trains and airlines... Are we supposed to believe that consumers have the same relationship with a dog-eared, third-hand copy of the magazine as with a pristine one they've paid for? Over the same period, Esquire's UK news-stand circulation fell 8 per cent.

The same applies to every men's magazine that has a significant number of bulks with its ABCs. During 2003, GQ gave away 200,000 copies, and UK news-stand circulation fell 6 per cent; Men's Health gave away 190,000 copies, sales fell 7 per cent; Maxim gave away 150,000; sales fell 5 per cent; and, finally, Jack gave away 130,000 copies... and we know what happened there.

Perhaps we should look to a dictionary definition of "bulk": "matter that passes through the intestines unabsorbed". It seems a wholly more appropriate way to describe the doling out of magazines to people who don't ask for them and, in most cases, probably don't read them.

My advice to advertisers? If you want to target folk who habitually get their glossy-magazine fix in doctor's waiting-rooms, then take out an ad in Reader's Digest. If you're desperate to get to those lucky buggers who get upgraded to first class, then High Life - BA's own magazine - awaits your call.

Anthony Noguera is the editor of 'Arena' magazine