Extra! Extra! Coupon offers, strings attached

March 07, 2000|By Howard Kleinberg

SEVERAL DECADES ago, our newspaper's advertising director suggested to me that we run a streamer across the top of the front page advising readers that there were coupons in that edition worth $200. A hidebound traditionalist, I rejected his idea and put something of news value across the top -- or at least what I believed to be news value.

That my newspaper -- the Miami News -- eventually went out of business speaks volumes about my reader judgment. While we in the newspaper game believe news is what sells -- that's what our detractors also claim: "They're just doing that to sell newspapers" -- it may not be the case.

Things such as discount coupons, entertainment news and sports seem to be in a position of domination at many newspapers across the country. It's also showing in news magazines as well, or haven't you seen entertainment-skewed

Time magazine lately?

What's the bigger sell: A story that state contractors are using substandard materials or that Kathy Lee Gifford is leaving her morning show? What's of greater interest to readers: That the county's homeless shelter is flat broke, or that there's a bunch of coupons inside the paper?

My local newspaper recently ran a front-page streamer advising readers that coupons in the paper -- in an inserted booklet from a national drug chain -- were worth over $500 in savings.

That the newspaper used part of its front page for promoting advertisements is an issue between the various departments of the newspaper, and its publisher. The sad truth likely is that more readers turned to that coupon-filled booklet than to the editorial page.

One of my earlier editors would insist that a "woman's interest" story appear on Page 1 every day because, he said, women made the decisions about what newspaper to have delivered to the house. The problem was that I never could define what was "woman's interest." Judging by many I know today, it could well be the stock market.

Inasmuch as federal authorities have recently announced plans to clamp down on advertising claims by long-distance telephone companies (I never believed them anyway; not the 10 cents, not the unlimited calls stuff), I set out to see what was with this claim of $500 in coupons in the paper.

Surely I have better things to do, but I felt compelled. How much did I have to spend to save $500 in a drugstore? So I leafed through the 236 coupons in the booklet; not once but twice, all the time tapping on the adding machine.

Fully half the coupons did not give the price of the item, just noted that it was 25 percent off or 25 cents off. The other ads had the regular price and the price with the coupon. I added those up.

It came to $1,770.25. That's what I would have to spend.

Mind you, that's the total of only about half; do we double it for those that did not include the price?

I doubt that anyone saved $500 with coupons at the drugstore that week, or ever intended to. This booklet was discounting everything from phone cards to condoms to laxatives to hair spray -- no discounts on prescription drugs by the way.

Nobody could take advantage of the full savings offered by these coupons; who needs ALL that stuff? But the total of its value made for a good streamer.

"Man bites dog" or "Headless woman in topless bar" seem to have become outmoded by reader tastes and journalistic drift. Now the big news is that there are coupons in the paper worth more than $500 in savings.

And I understand why it is happening. They're just doing it to sell newspapers.

Howard Kleinberg, a former editor of the Miami News, is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.

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