Misleading claims that give the

Is it any wonder that people don’t always believe what they read in the newspapers? The way they hype their own products or sales figures – particularly in relation to their competitors – makes other packaged goods operators seem like bashful novices.

Take The Mirror last Saturday, which trumpeted what it called a “meteorological announcement” – almost certainly the first time it has carried a seven-syllable word in a front-page headline. The announcement – “Total eclipse of The Sun has started” – was displayed, above what looked like a bare, pinkish planet but, on closer inspection, turned out to be a man’s bald head, with the top of a pair of glasses just visible.

This, presumably, was intended to be Sun editor David Yelland – a good joke, which would have had people in The Mirror’s Canary Wharf offices chortling, and many in The Sun’s Wapping premises seething. But what on earth did the papers’ readers make of it? And were they meant to regard the accompanying coverage as accurate and fair – or merely knockabout puffery in the tabloid tradition?

The headline blared: “Mirror’s dazzling sales figures spark total eclipse of The Sun.” An accompanying chart showed the Mirror’s sales soaring at an angle of about 25 degrees, while The Sun’s fell at an even sharper angle. For good measure, the Daily Mail’s sales were shown too, also in decline.

Captions explained that the chart was based on the sales figures for

April ’99, compared with the previous month: Mirror +28,000 copies (up 1.20 per cent);

Daily Mail -25,597 copies (down 1.08 per cent); The Sun -67,005 copies (down 1.76 per cent).

The supposed brilliance of The Mirror’s achievement was spelled out in the accompanying article: “The total eclipse of The Sun began sensationally early last night – as newspaper sales figures confirmed The Mirror is now the biggest star in the firmament. The real solar eclipse, Britain’s first for 70 years, is not due until August 11. But the skies darkened dramatically over our rivals at Wapping last night as they unveiled a stunning slump in their popularity.

“The official circulation figures for last month confirm that The Sun has lost an unprecedented 170,000 readers since last month. The dreary Daily Mail went the same way.”

Further on, the article explained that it had translated the sales figures into readership figures on the basis that “every extra copy sold means an extra 2.7 readers… so while other papers were losing circulation, we welcome an incredible extra 76,000 readers during April. Any way you look at the figures, it is great news.”

Well, not exactly. It was certainly a good month for The Mirror – and a bad one for The Sun. But if you look at the figures in the most basic way – namely, how many copies each newspaper sold in April – it is hard to justify the claim that “The Mirror is now the biggest star in the firmament”.

For The Mirror’s April circulation was 2,331,101, while The Sun’s was 3,746,376 – giving The Sun a clear lead of over 1.4 million copies.

Strangely, these figures do not appear anywhere in The Mirror’s article. Not even in tiny print, accompanied by an asterisk. It’s as if The Mirror had announced that Arsenal had won the Premiership, on the grounds that they had gained on Manchester United in the last month. Except that Arsenal got a good deal closer to its rival than The Mirror has so far. Indeed, in April the Mail also sold more copies than The Mirror.

Had The Mirror made such misleading claims in an ad, it would almost certainly have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority or the Independent Television Commission – as another cavalier newspaper did last week. The Observer found itself taken to the ITC by the actor Ewan McGregor, over a commercial which portrayed him in a way he found offensive (MW May 13). More to the point, the ITC ruled that it gave a misleading impression of the newspaper’s content.

The ad was for the paper’s TV and film section, Screen, and showed a youth ripping down posters for the film Trainspotting, destroying a video of it and burning the film’s screenplay. The voiceover asked how Ewan McGregor felt about Leonardo di Caprio getting his part in The Beach, and if he’d forgiven his pal Danny Boyle – who made both films – for the snub. The ad closed on what seemed to be the Screen front cover, consisting of a full page picture of the actor and the title “Ewan McGregor Very Moody”.

McGregor’s agents argued that the youth was intended to represent the actor, implying he was now unhappy with Trainspotting, which wasn’t the case. The Observer and its agency – Ogilvy & Mather – said they didn’t believe viewers would see the character as Ewan McGregor and they were simply portraying the immense emotions that “casting politics” can arouse.

McGregor’s agents also claimed the ad was misleading, giving the impression that the paper would contain “sensational revelations” about their client’s relationship with Boyle and that the actor had spoken to the paper, which he hadn’t. The ad showed McGregor’s picture on the cover of Screen, but the magazine itself carried a different cover picture. The Observer said that was because of a last-minute layout change. It denied that the ad implied the article was centred on McGregor or contained an interview with him. The ITC disagreed, saying the use of questions such as “How does he feel….?” implied the paper had some personal insight into the actor’s feelings.

The real clincher was the ITC’s revelation that the article referred to McGregor and his relationship with Boyle only in the first two paragraphs out of a 20 paragraph article, and only in an observational manner.

If I had bought that week’s Observer on the basis of the advertising, I might well have felt misled too. A whole TV commercial – based on two paragraphs? Was this, like The Mirror’s coverage of its sales figures, an in-joke?

The Observer and Mirror seem to regard their readers as mugs.


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