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The reviving national economy should have lifted ad pages in February, but that was not the case.

Though ad revenue rose, the actual page tally for consumer magazines tracked by the Publishers Information Bureau flattened out to 13,640.93, down 0.6% from the same month a year ago. And that has pushed the year-to-date ad page figure into the negative category by the slimmest of margins-minus 0.1% to 24,138.89.

The recovery looks spotty. Of the consumer magazines that reported February ad pages to PIB, the winners barely outnumbered the losers, 86 to 81. Only six of the top 10 categories showed increases in February revenue: computers and office equipment (up 33.3%); travel, hotels and resorts (33.3%); direct response (19.6%); toiletries and cosmetics (17.7%); business and consumer services (9.6%); and drugs and remedies (2.9%).

The engine that could drive a major recovery-automotive, automotive accessories and equipment-remains stuck in neutral. Automotive is the largest ad category for magazines, but in February it slipped gears and dropped by 0.8% to $83.4 million.

That means the automotive year-to-date figure is now up just slightly-0.1% to $159 million. And that's hardly going to make publishers stand up and cheer.

The ad revenue figures, universally regarded as erring on the high side, show February up 5% to $613.8 million. Though it follows a January gain of just 3% in PIB revenue to $463.8 million, it still doesn't show steadily rising growth when put in context of the entire quarter.

By comparison, December 1993 was up 7.6% from the year-earlier period to $694.1 million.

The biggest percentage decline among the top 10 belonged to apparel, footwear and accessories, which plunged 13.6% to $39.6 million. For the year to date, the category is also the leading loser among the top 10, dropping 10.6% to $48.4 million.

Food and food products also made the top 10, even though it's down 8.5% to $39.9 million in ad revenue.

Likewise, publishing and media squeaked onto the top 10 list though February spending dropped 3% to $21.1 million. For the year to date, the category is up 5.3% to $39.3 million.

So far this year, the hottest magazine is SmartMoney, up 131% in ad pages through February. Other titles that surged out of the gate with ad page gains of more than 50% in the first two months include: Income Opportunities (up 97.9%), Success (85.7%), Elle Decor (73.7%) and Hemispheres (51.2%).

There is also good cheer among the so-called Seven Sisters, where six titles are up this year, paced by McCall's 11.6% rise to 184.33 ad pages.

The only lonely sister in the minus category is Goodhousekeeping, which took an 18.9% dive in ad pages in February, dropping its year-to-date total by 7.4% to 190.62 ad pages.

Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.

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