Middle-aged, small-sized but most read

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The Independent Online
THIRTY-FIVE variations on a Jasper Carrott joke about a dead rabbit arrived at the Reader's Digest offices in London recently. It was no surprise. They get a thousand jokes or anecdotes a week.

After the contents, the first editorial you read in this small but perfectly formed magazine is an invitation to send in your 'laugh lines'.

'We get lots of old jokes and bad jokes and lots from the routines of television comedians,' said Russell Twisk, the editor-in-chief. 'Twenty-five per cent of our readers turn to the jokes first.'

Reader's Digest conjures up images of doctors' waiting rooms and retirement reading, but last week the laughs were on the detractors of the country's most unfashionable magazine. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show that Reader's Digest, which, at 55, is about the same age as many of its readers, has overtaken the mighty Radio Times to become the country's most popular magazine. Every month 1,651,820 people buy it for what Henry van Wyk, its advertising director, calls 'uplifting material and good news'.

They don't just buy it, they love it. One-and-a-half million of them pay for it a year in advance. And, according to Mr Twisk, they spend an average 81 minutes per issue reading it. This is longer than they spend flicking through its mass-circulation rivals, mainly television listing titles.

But Reader's Digest still has a problem. It's a funny shape, and though its circulation may be huge, it is too small for advertisers' liking. Being pocket- sized means the title has to struggle to get the advertising revenue it ought to attract with so many affluent readers.

The problem lies with creative departments in advertising agencies, according to Helen Jones, communication planning director at Still Price Lintas, which does use the magazine regularly to advertise P & O cruises.

'Creatives don't want their work being seen in that environment because it's so small.' Rhona Tridgell, media group head for Ford at O&M Media, said the car giant gets excellent response to advertising in the Digest but confirmed that other agencies remained sniffy. 'It's not modern-looking, which may be its downfall.'

Ms Jones added: 'There's a stigma attached to Reader's Digest that once you subscribe you can never get rid of it.'

This is definitely not true, said Andrew Lynam-Smith, the Digest's marketing manager. He would not reveal how many millions are invited to enter the twice-yearly pounds 150,000 postal Prize Draw. But he said that anyone who asked would be taken off the mailing list immediately.

The agencies had better get used to some small but perfectly formed advertising because the Digest's readers love the size. And, in contrast to many other magazines where advertisers place their wares, the readers actually read it.

The original philosophy was one article for each day of the month. This month it asks if your boss is a bully, helps you make your child a leader, recruits help to clean up Britain's beaches and visits Elvis Presley's home, Graceland. 'Word Power' is still there, alongside 'Life's Like That' - pounds 150 a published story - and 'Towards More Picturesque Speech' - pounds 50 a time: 'Why did the ancient Peruvians worship the Sun God? Because they didn't want to Inca his wrath.'

Mr Twisk says that every page must be read - even if that means sticking a laugh line on it. He counted 95 in this latest issue. And the fact-checkers ensured that none of them was Jasper Carrott's one about the dead rabbit.

(Photograph omitted)