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O.C.-based Car Magazine Rides Out Recession : Publishing: Ad sales for automotive periodicals as a group have outpaced the rest of the industry.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Domestic car makers are slashing production and car sales are in the pits because of the slumping economy. But the people at Road & Track magazine are still smiling.

Despite such gloomy news, the granddaddy of auto buff magazines is having one of its best years ever.

While advertising is down throughout the magazine industry in 1991, Newport Beach-based Road & Track’s national ad sales from January to November were $31.28 million--the third-highest for that period in the magazine’s 44-year history.

In fact, auto magazines as a group--despite some slippage in ads--have outpaced the rest of the magazine industry.

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Publishers Information Bureau, which tallies advertising data from the nation’s consumer magazines, reported Thursday that national ad revenue for the first 11 months of 1991 totaled $5.9 billion, down 3.5% from last year.

National ad sales at Road & Track for the same period were almost unchanged from the $31.31 million posted for the first 11 months of 1990.

Moreover, the magazine’s paid circulation of 735,301, as of June 30, was the second-highest ever, increasing 4.7% from 702,548 a year earlier.

How come things are going so well for the magazine in the midst of a slumping economy?

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One reason: Car makers have cut their ad budgets less than any other category of national advertising this year, according to James Guthrie, vice president of market development for Magazine Publishers of America, a national trade council.

And they are using auto magazines more than ever in an effort to aim their messages at the nation’s automotive opinion leaders.

Tom Bryant, editor of Road & Track, believes circulation is up because while those opinion leaders aren’t buying cars as often as they used to, they still like to look at what they are missing. Ad research shows that when those same leaders do decide to buy, they usually turn to the enthusiast magazines for information about the cars, he said.

“We certainly are being much more focused in our advertising because of the recession,” said Jay Amestoy, vice president of public relations at Mazda Motor of America in Irvine, the Japanese car maker’s U.S. importer.

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Auto magazines, he said, “are very important to us. We design cars for the person who cares about what he or she drives, and that makes the car magazines a particularly good vehicle.”

Guthrie said that officials at Mazda and American Suzuki, the Brea-based importer of the Suzuki Swift cars, and Sidekick and Samurai sports utility vehicles, have said they intend to increase their use of magazine advertising in 1992.

Other auto magazines are also having good years.

At Motor Trend, the Los Angeles-based auto magazine founded just two years after Road & Track, circulation as of June 30 was up 5% to 887,475 from a year earlier. National ad revenue for the first 10 months fell 6.6%, to $25.3 million from $27.1 million, “but in relation to the magazine industry as a whole, we and the other (enthusiast magazines) did very well,” said Peter Clancey, senior vice president and national advertising director for Petersen Publishing Co., which owns Motor Trend.

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Road & Track’s sister publication, Car and Driver, saw 11-month national ad sales rise almost 6%, to $48.5 million, from a year earlier.

The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based magazine, which targets a broader market than Road & Track, reported that its paid circulation through June 30 was up a brisk 10% to just over 1 million.

The two magazines are owned by Hachette Magazines in New York, a unit of the French publishing conglomerate Hachette Communications, which bought them in June, 1988.

Donald Hufford, who had been publisher of Car and Driver since 1985, was named Hachette Automotive Group Publisher in July, assuming the additional role of publisher of Road & Track.

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In October, he ordered a reorganization that eliminated both magazines’ advertising directors and installed a trio of regional group vice presidents to whom the separate advertising staffs will report.

“It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the advertising world,” Hufford said. “Ad agencies are looking to buy more combinations of magazines in the same publishing companies because of the efficiencies to the advertisers. . . . They don’t have to deal with two or three separate ad managers. . . . They want access to people who can make decisions that help them spend their money more efficiently.”

The shuffling led to the departure of Donald Reis, Road & Track’s advertising director, who quit rather than accept a demotion.

In an interview shortly before his resignation, Reis attributed the magazine’s relatively steady ad sales in a slumping economy to the special role it has carved out for itself.

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“It is more important now than ever before for car makers to get their message before the people who help form public opinions about cars,” he said. “And our research shows that our readers influence eight to 10 other buying decisions. People who are thinking of buying a new car naturally turn to the guy in the office who subscribes” to a car magazine.

Although the auto world has changed radically in the past few decades with the growing dominance of the Japanese manufacturers, the typical reader of car magazines has changed little.

The demographics of the typical Road & Track reader haven’t varied much in the 20 years its editor, Bryant, has been at the magazine. A 1990 report prepared by New York-based Media Mark Research for Road & Track found that the average subscriber is 38; 87% are men; 44% are college graduates; 48% are married; 73% own their own homes and 27% have annual household income of $50,000 or more.

The numbers are almost identical for Car & Driver and Motor Trend.

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Data like that, said Guthrie, the Magazine Publishers Assn. marketing director, are what make these magazines attractive to auto advertisers.

Auto advertising in magazines during the past 15 years has outperformed all other categories of magazine advertising, Guthrie said.

Most significant, however, is that during the last four recessions, the automotive magazines have outperformed all other magazines in terms of national ad sales, solely on the basis of their strong appeal to automotive advertisers.

Today, he said, new-car ads are the largest single category of magazine advertising, accounting for 13% of the total. And magazines capture 22% of all national automotive advertising, compared to only 17% of all other types of national ads, Guthrie said.

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Despite flat car sales for the past five years, the percentage of auto advertising to overall magazine ads has been rising steadily, he said. One explanation is that the number of new car models has risen 50% during that period.

“The big reason the enthusiast magazines benefit is that research has shown over and over that at all times, and especially in recessions, car purchasers say they got more of the information that they used in their decision-making from car magazines than from even the car dealer,” Guthrie said.

Since its earliest days under John and Elaine Bond, who rescued Road & Track from financial doom in 1948 and moved it from New York to California, the magazine has geared itself to the car nut rather than to the general public.

In the early days, that meant that Road & Track paid a lot of attention to European cars.

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Today, it stills pays attention to automobiles that its editors consider “better than average,” Bryant said.

“We are interested in cars with better-than-average handling, performance and fuel and space efficiency, cars we consider rational,” Bryant said.

“That gets us criticized as being import-biased, and we aren’t,” he said. “There are a lot of American cars that fit our criteria. For the most part, cars today are incredibly good. But John Bond was saying back in the old days that there was no reason for Detroit to churn out 5,000-pound cars that drank gallons of gasoline when smaller cars would be equally good, or even better. And back then you had to look to Europe to see them.”

Despite Japan’s reputation as the preeminent builder of reliable, quality cars, Bryant says Detroit has rallied with winners of its own.

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“Besides the obvious, the Corvette, Camaro and Mustang, there are cars like the new Cadillac Seville and the (Cadillac) Allante, the Buick Park Avenue, the Olds 88 and, of course, Ford’s Taurus,” he said. “The Taurus was a breakthrough car for the domestic auto industry, a car that proved that Americans will buy a family car that is rational.”

Car Magazines Ride Out Economy’s Bumps Despite a slumping economy that has trimmed the magazine industry’s national advertising revenue, magazines that appeal to car buffs have fared comparatively well. Road & Track had the third-highest ad sales in the January--November period in its 44-year history. And Car and Driver’s ad sells were up 6% during the same period.

Gross Ad Revenue Road & Track:

Jan.-Dec. 1989: $37.6 million

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Jan.-Dec. 1990: $34.6 million

Jan.-Nov. 1991: $31.3 million

Car and Driver:

Jan.-Dec. 1989: $54.3 million

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Jan.-Dec. 1990: $49.6 million

Jan.-Nov. 1991: $48.6 million

Circulation (1990 figures)

Car and Driver: 937,400

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Road & Track: 712,000

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation


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