Dull election pops papers sales myth

Traditionally, papers benefit from election fever but with pundits predicting a boring 1997 event, price cuts may still be the liveliest option.

It looks as if there is going to be another nine weeks of electioneering before we are put out of our misery by polling day. The only people happy about such long election campaigns should be newspapers. It is a long-held belief that newspaper sales – especially broadsheets – automatically improve in election periods.

As a newspaper sales myth this ranks with the idea that price-elasticity in the broadsheet market was “discovered” by Rupert Murdoch in 1993 when he cut the price of The Times.

The price-elasticity myth usually credits Murdoch’s conversion to price competition for branded goods as coming from the experience of Philip Morris when it cut the price of its cigarettes by 25 per cent on the now infamous Marlboro Friday.

The error of this is apparent straightaway when you realise that Marlboro Friday was in April 1994, ten months after The Times had cut its price.

Furthermore, the newspaper price war between The Times and The Daily Telegraph started in 1855 when The Telegraph launched as a penny paper. The Telegraph overtook The Times within four years and climbed to a circulation of 300,000, while The Times hovered between 50,000 and 60,000.

The Times only overtook The Telegraph in 1915 when it cut its price to one penny, while The Telegraph cost one and a half. Newspaper price elasticity was neatly illustrated when The Times’ circulation crashed from 210,000 to 110,000 between 1917 and 1921, after it introduced price increases.

The Telegraph moved into permanent ascendancy when it cut its price again in the Twenties and it has only started to look over its shoulder since The Times’ move in 1993.

In the post-war period, newspaper fortunes have centred on their editorial content and promotions. Editorially this has been based on human interest and sex-scandal content. But it has also always been thought that they were positioned politically to take advantage of their reader’s interests. The newspapers reflected not only their owners’ interests, but the fairly even electoral battles between the Labour and Conservative Parties through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

Politics was seen to be especially crucial in the quality market where there were fewer bingo games and give-away promotions until the mid-Eighties. Even in the mass market today, marketing directors ruefully admit that their various games and promotions cannot lift sales and encourage sampling the way a good front-page splash can.

Tied to this belief in the importance of a political stance is a belief in the importance of political coverage during general elections. It has been seen as a time when casual newspaper readers and floating voters are looking for information to base their decisions on.

Even though it was The Sun “wot won it” in 1992 – at least, according to The Sun – it was the broadsheets, with their acres of coverage for those looking to make up their minds, who stood by the belief that an election brings a sales lift.

However, an analysis of the quality market during the 198and 1992 general elections shows that the election sales effect is not straightforward good news for newspapers.

In 1987, there was a sales lift in the quality market. As a whole it increased by five per cent from 2,350,000 to about 2,470,000 between January 1987 and the election in July.

However, much of the sales increase can be attributed to the growth of The Independent which was launched the year before and was on a general upward curve that continued past the election to a peak in 1991.

The other major factor in the five per cent uplift during the 1987 election was growth at The Telegraph. However, the nature of its growth was longer-term and was due to a recovery from a sales slump in 1986.

The Times and The Guardian achieved small sales blips of less than 50,000 for a few weeks before the election, but rapidly lost the extra sales once Margaret Thatcher was returned to Dowining Street.

The sales effect of the April 1992 election was even more ambivalent. The market remained generally flat in the three months before the election and only The Independent and The Guardian registered any sort of brief blip. The Times and The Telegraph saw their long-term decline remain unchanged.

The Independent’s small sales lift in the 1987 and 1992 elections may be down to its non-party political stance being used as an unbiased source of information for the undecided. It may also explain the newspaper’s current burst of TV advertising and subscription drive. The newspaper’s management may be aiming to help along the “election effect” as a spur to turning sales around.

The different sales effects of the two elections are all the more remarkable when you consider that the 1992 election was a more closely fought contest than 1987. Common sense would suggest that the 1992 fight to the wire would generate a better sales uplift than a foregone conclusion.

Newspaper executives are already predicting that this year’s election will be the most boring in history. It is forecast to be as dull as last year’s US elections because of the convergence of the main parties on the political middle ground, and because of one party’s long-term dominance of the polls.

For newspapers it seems the only thing likely to liven up sales is another round of price cuts.

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