|MRI data indicates readers of 'Weight Watchers' earn more than readers of ultra-luxury 'Town & Country.'
A SPECIAL REPORT ON MAGAZINE CIRCULATION
70% of Publications Suffer Declining Newsstand Sales
So say data from the most recent round of Mediamark Research Inc., which measures audience size and many of its demographic attributes for 245 magazines twice a year. MRI data, especially its total-audience numbers, are widely used by print-media buyers to make decisions on which titles will get their ad pages.
According to the figures in its just-released spring 2004 Magazine Audience Estimates, Us Weekly's median household income is $77,967. Vanity Fair's is $76,422. Town & Country's is $58,626; Weight Watchers' is $59,556. (Average household income in America, according to MRI, is $51,132.)
Perception vs. reality
Such findings, which suggest a broad gap between the perception and reality of key magazines' audiences, are occasionally welcomed.
"What we've been doing has clicked in," said Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, which publishes Us Weekly. He pointed to that title's substantial gains in audience (up 24.1% since last spring's study) and education levels -- which were unavailable in data Advertising Age obtained -- and called its numbers "above practically all women's books." (One key exception: Time Inc.'s powerhouse Real Simple, which had a median household income of $92,662, which puts it in the highest echelon of high-demographic publications, trailing only the likes of sibling title Fortune and Dow Jones & Co.'s Wall Street Journal.)
Other comments from publishing executives hint at simmering dissatisfactions with MRI measurements. While these concerns are longstanding, they nonetheless dovetail with recent instances in which media executives question the messenger rather than undesirable audience measurements, as with Nielsen Media Research and the now-infamous decline in TV viewership among young men.
"MRI is broken, with regard to measuring the luxury and affluent consumer," said Michael Clinton, chief marketing officer of Hearst Magazines. He charged that MRI's methods of in-home interviews were a poor match for the ultra-wealthy who live in gated communities, and pointed to Town & Country surveys and one from Mendelsohn Media Research that pegged Town & Country readers' average household income at well over $100,000. (Mendelsohn's Affluent survey, from which Mr. Clinton drew his data, only surveys those who earn over $75,000 a year.)
In a statement, MRI President-CEO Kathi Love said, "MRI has full confidence in the way it measures and reports all segments of the adult U.S. population, and in fact we over-sample consumers within the upper 25% of national income."
MRI's surveys are but one of many measuring magazine audience, but they're the most widely used and the closest to an industry standard. It also surveys the most people, media buyers said, with over 18,000 respondents for its spring survey.
Still, the vagaries of audience targeting mean that decisions are not as binary as simply, say, choosing The Wall Street Journal or The Atlantic rather than Vanity Fair simply owing to higher household-income figures in MRI. And media buyers say they're loath to base decisions solely on MRI data, with many stating a preference for Mendelsohn's studies for marketers seeking affluent audiences -- and more than a few echoing Mr. Clinton's claims.
Demographics vs. psychographics
"Household income is impossible to look at isolated from other variables," said Scott McDonald, senior vice president of market research at Advance Magazines Group, which publishes Vanity Fair. "It's not about the demographics, it's about the psychographics. No advertiser in their right mind would simply try to target" by income, absent other factors like purchasing habits.
But many media buyers frankly doubted MRI's recent findings rather than their own perceptions of high-demographic titles. "Why is it that publications like Town & Country, which we instinctively know probably have [ultra-affluent readers] come out with" household income in the $50,000 range, when the likes of Time4Media's Ski or Skiing fare much better, demanded one who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "My instinct" for upscale clients, the buyer concluded, "is to go to another study."
But one buyer disagreed -- at least in Vanity Fair's case. "[Vanity Fair] does very well in perception" among marketers and buyers, "but numerically, they don't pan out," said Pam McNeely, senior vice president and group media director at Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif.
"We feel that the reality and the perception with regard to our titles -- and particularly Vanity Fair -- are the same," Chuck Townsend, president-CEO of Advance Magazines Group, said through a spokeswoman. "We do deliver that upscale audience to both the advertiser and to our readers."