Parade has been touting findings from the study to agencies and advertisers as proof that its readership rate and audience size are considerably larger than arch rival USA Weekend. USA Weekend, in turn, claims that any conclusions drawn from this research are premature.
The study, conducted by Mediamark Research Inc. earlier this year, was only recently released publicly, and is causing a stir in the print media field. According to Parade's interpretation, Parade is read by roughly three-quarters of the readers of its carrier newspapers, while USA Weekend is read by just over half of its carrier readers.
Add to that a higher reader-per-copy metric for Parade and a larger carrier base, and Parade can claim a two-to-one advantage in total audience size.
"That's not surprising that [that information] comes from the mouths at Parade," says USA Weekend Publisher Chuck Gabrielson.
While USA Weekend is complaining, the MRI research does have the endorsement of several bigwigs, including the Advertising Research Foundation, the Media Ratings Council, and Kantar Media Research's MARS unit, according to Parade.
Yet Gabrielson points out that the new study is said to have a very high error rate, and says that he is not alone in cautioning that is too early to draw any conclusions from the data. "All those agencies agree that this one round of study is inconclusive," he says. "This is a POV, not a final decree of what the research will be."
To determine Parade and USA Weekend's readership figures, two simultaneous two-page surveys were issued to two nationally representative 3,000-person sample groups. The first directly measured USA Weekendand Parade's readership, while the second measured straight Sunday newspaper readership, regardless of whether Parade or USA Weekend were included in the papers.
The surveys were then cross-referenced, creating separate 'factor's for each magazine, based on the percentage of Sunday newspaper readers who also read supplements.
Representatives from MRI were unavailable for comment for this story. The company is scheduled to release a white paper detailing this research in the coming weeks.
William A. Cook, senior vice president-research & standards at the ARF, admits that the research is imperfect, but believes that it is better than nothing at this point. "Our recommendation was to make it available to the population to apply on their own," he says, while adding: "We want everybody to know that the error range is fairly huge."
The issue of Sunday supplement readership has long been debated among media planners. Parade and USA Weekend have traditionally been sold using the sum circulation of all of their carrier partners.
Both magazines acknowledge that these figures do not represent true readership. To compensate, many agencies have arbitrarily applied their own qualifiers to this circulation data.
But given the new research, both Parade and Rebecca McPheters, head of research consultancy McPheters and Co., have been discussing the study's findings at various research meetings while beginning to talk to agency execs.
"The study showed that the readership of USA Weekend and Parade is different, and that more people read Parade," shares McPheters.
The reception from the ad community has been solid, according to John J. Beni, Parade's vice chairman. "They really expected the numbers to be lower," he says.
However, Mike Neiss, executive vice president of media at Lowe Worldwide, sums up the attitude of many toward supplements.
"One of the biggest things they have had to tackle is whether half the copies of their magazine go directly into landfill," he says. Neiss, who had not seen the MRI study, said that Sunday supplements are seen as a risky media buy by some. "It's extremely expensive out of pocket, with no indication of whether the copies get read," he says.
At the behest of agencies and the magazines themselves, MRI conducted two preliminary studies back in 2003 in order to better frame questions for the current study.
The first examined how best to label supplements when conducting research ("magazine in the Sunday paper" won out) Next, MRI examined whether the association with individual carrier papers was important in determining readership (and they found it was).
McPheters acknowledged that this latest group of studies, which had roughly 1,200 respondents per, was on the smaller side. This concerns USA Weekend's Gabrielson. "Because of the sample size, there is definitely a question about how accurate the numbers are," he says.
All parties agree that more research is needed.
"A whole lot of people at the ARF see this as a patch," says Cook. "We need to custom build a really good database."
"The study needs to be conducted at whatever level of frequency that is needed," McPheters says. "The industry feels that this shouldn't be the only one, but this gave us a lot more information than we've had in the past."
There is one barrier, however, to continuing such research. "It was extremely expensive," McPheters says.