Boomers, electronics hold promise of prime growth

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Magazine publishers over the last few years have found themselves on a decidedly non-quixotic quest for "the next big thing": namely, that high-spending product category that will lift the industry out of its post-dot-com slumber. Yet despite a rally of sorts in 2004-the 3.8% spike in ad pages was the highest percentage increase since 2000, according to Publishers Information Bureau data-no single category emerged as a lifesaver.

Over the course of the decade, hopes have risen and fallen on liquor, pharmaceuticals and a handful of other categories. Advertisers in these categories may have pumped billions of dollars into magazines over the years, but none has filled the void left when the technology sector imploded. As a result, eager publishers continue to look high and low for potential sources of future growth.

Many of the predictions about the next big ad category seem to be borne out of optimism.

The closest thing to a consensus seems to be that products targeting baby boomers, notably products in the skincare realm, are set to multiply over the next few years.


The reason for the baby-boomer product, uh, boom is simple, says Michael Clinton, exec VP-chief marketing officer and publishing director at Hearst Magazines: "They're vain. They've got money to spend, and they'll spend it to make themselves appear younger."

Stephen Bohlinger, VP-publisher of Time Inc.'s Cottage Living, agrees, adding that magazines could be among the prime beneficiaries of the new-product introductions.

"Outside of something like Health, there's really no endemic book for products like this," he says. "Anything that advocates a healthy lifestyle or the get-out-and-live-long-and-happily mentality will be in the mix."

At Meredith Corp.'s Country Home, Publisher David Kahn goes even further. He suggests that magazines are poised to take advantage of a trend not just toward anti-aging beauty products, but toward anything that has "perceived medicinal or health benefits" for older consumers. Among the products he groups under this umbrella are men's skin treatments and beverages with vitamin supplements.

"Look at what Procter & Gamble did with Crest Whitestrips," he says. "That's the perfect example of the trend toward solutions that are less expensive than the doctor's office but more expensive than what those companies used to try and sell us. There's lots of money flowing behind these innovative products, and magazines really should see some of it."

Depending on whom you ask, videogames could soon jump onto the magazine bandwagon as well. Part of the enthusiasm stems from the industry's phenomenal 2004, when videogames neared theatrical films in total U.S. revenue. For example, Microsoft Game Studios' "Halo 2" pulled in $125 million on its first day of release last Nov. 9; by comparison, Hollywood's biggest-ever weekend opening was Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Spider-Man," at $114 million.

Then there's former magazine mainstay category consumer electronics, which publishers and media buyers believe could be poised for a big comeback. Part of this, to be sure, can be traced to publishing folks who, after seeing hordes of iPod users blissfully gallop through Grand Central Station every morning, scratch their chins sagely and observe, "Portable digital music, eh?" Beyond the Apple iPod craze, however, pundits believe a categorywide spending resurgence could be fueled by the continued influx of all-in-one, convergence-type products.

"People want to see how these products fit into their lives. Magazine advertising could play a big part in framing it for them," says Mary Murcko, publisher of Rodale's Best Life.

Not everybody is sold on the category's potential, but even skeptics acknowledge that consumer electronics advertising often surges in the wake of a single must-have device-remember the VCR in the early 1980s. Jack Hanrahan, U.S. director-strategic print communications at Omnicom Group's OMD, New York, notes there's currently "not much" competitive advertising in the supposedly sizzling portable-digital-music category. His caveat: Consumer electronics "seems to reinvent itself when a hot product comes out. It only takes one, and we've already seen a little of this with the iPod."


As for a way to spot the next hot category before the ads start spilling onto magazine pages, publishers and media folks have no shortage of ideas. George Janson, managing partner-director of print at WPP Group-owned Mediaedge:cia, suggests looking overseas for inspiration. He notes that several publishing trends first emerged on the other side of the pond and believes that ad trends might be discerned that way as well. "Japanese shopping magazines inspired Lucky, and Elle, Marie Claire and the laddie titles were all born in Europe," he says.

Industry players might also pay more attention to census data. Given the actual and expected growth of the Hispanic population, marketers will likely roll out even more products targeted at Latinos-and they'll have to advertise these products in a focused environment, which plays to the strengths of magazines.