Why We Just Can't Bag the Tote

Behind the Science of the Magazine World's Most-Touted Incentive

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One day in the future, a media historian will set aside a yellowed subscription blow-in card, scratch his chin and think about the magazine-publishing industry of 2012. Why, he will wonder, in a time when technology was offering cooler and cheaper little gadgets that might easily become subscription incentives, did the industry keep hanging so many of its hopes on a simple, nontechnological object?

He will be trying to understand the tote bag.

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Yes, the tote bag. Cheap, functional, versatile. I joke about it being part of the tweedy trappings of public radio, but it's so much more than that . Any number of magazine publishers have positioned it as the thing that will get them into your wallet, cooing, "Yeah, we've got great articles. But so what? We've also got this tote bag. You know you want it."

You've seen these offers. Get a year's worth of O, The Oprah Magazine for $10 and get this free tote bag. They all do it. People. Good Housekeeping. Smithsonian magazine has an eco-tote. The New Yorker takes it up a notch or two, with its Weekender Bag. Surveying this promotional landscape, you'd think we were a hobo civilization in which status is measured by the number of branded cloth carryalls into which we stuff our sharpened shivs and stale loaves of bread to be gnawed on while reading "Talk of the Town" by the light of a trash fire.

Whether we really need all these totes is beside the point. I'm focused on what the tote bag as subscriber lure says about the print-publishing world.

By this point in time, if you're in the business of charging people money for your print product, you are, in effect, a premium brand, if not a luxury one. Why? Because there's a 99% likelihood that the content you're getting people to pony up for in dead-tree form is available gratis somewhere on the internet. Subscribers aren't paying for access to the information but for the convenience of delivery or whatever associations come along with clutching a copy of , say, The Economist. Or Cat Fancy. Or whatever. They're buying the brand.

So what does it say that you think the way to nudge people into this commitment is a chintzy gift? It's already bad enough that magazine subscriptions have been criminally and perhaps fatally underpriced throughout history. Now you're tacking on a promotional item that , at the low end, can be purchased in bulk for a buck or two a pop?

Not only does this insult the very notion of engagement, but when you go too cheap, you risk harm to the brand you're promoting. To wit, one of the top Google results for The New Yorker's perhaps optimistically named Weekender Bag is a blog post that calls it "ghastly" and a "complete disgrace," adding that it "smells like a gas station, whose material is perhaps one and a half increments in quality away from a trash bag purchased at a dollar store." This isn't going to cost the publication subscriptions, but neither is it the kind of sentiment you want kicking around in the world. The blog, by the way, is called We Witnessed the Apocalypse.

Back when advertising was a more reliable revenue stream for publishers with huge circulations, the freebie game often resembled an arms race, with waterproof shower radios deployed against pens with calculators built right into them. And don't forget the Sports Illustrated football phone. Ad Age had a killer promo of its own: mugs on which a subscriber's name could be laser-etched in front of the words "Wins Marketing Genius Award." (Note: Award not real.)   

That's all cooled down in these days of , shall we say, unfavorable trends for print advertising and rising costs for paper, printing and postage. But the tote bag persists.

I asked Dave Bergeman, head of consumer marketing at The Atlantic, to help explain its endurance. As magazine brands go, The Atlantic is relatively upmarket, with an average net subscription price north of $18. Mr. Bergeman said that just about all of the magazine's subscriptions are won with without "premiums," industry-speak for promotional items. The magazine, however, has toyed with sweepstakes and experimentation, something Mr. Bergeman encourages.

And he understands the impulse for certain publishers, especially those whose revenues are more advertising-dependent, to rely on premiums. "They're done because they work," he said. "They're useful action devices, and in some cases, they're enough to push people over."

The tote bag in particular travels with a subscriber, all the better to tell the world that she or he is part of that magazine's club -- the kind of person who follows world affairs, or adores cats.

And maybe nobody should begrudge publishers the tools they need to lure readers. "At the end of the day, publishers have to do what they have to do to keep circulation up," said Jon Nagle, VP-associated media director at media agency RJ Palmer.

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