'Us' readers richer? Poor 'Vanity Fair'

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us weekly's readers are richer than Vanity Fair's. And readers of Town & Country-Hearst Magazines' ultra-luxe-life glossy-make less money than the readers of Weight Watchers.

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 '04 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.)

Such findings, which suggest a broad gap between the perception and reality of key magazines' audiences, are occasionally welcomed.

Kent Brownridge, general manager of Wenner Media, publisher of Us Weekly, points to that title's substantial audience gain, up 24.1%, and called its numbers "above practically all women's books." It's still behind Time Inc. powerhouse, Real Simple, which had a median household income of $92,662-which puts it in the highest echelon of high-demographic publications.

Other comments from publishing executives hint at simmering dissatisfactions with MRI measurements. "MRI is broken, with regard to measuring the luxury and affluent consumer," said Michael Clinton, chief marketing officer, 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, which 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."

not just income

Media buyers are loath to base decisions solely on MRI, with many stating a preference for Mendelsohn's studies for marketers seeking affluent audiences-and more than a few echoing Mr. Clinton's claims.

"Household income is impossible to look at isolated from other variables," said Scott McDonald, senior VP-market research at Conde Nast Publications, 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 buyers doubted MRI's recent findings rather than their own perceptions of high-demo 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 VP-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," said Chuck Townsend, president-CEO, Advance Magazines Group, through a spokeswoman.

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