After 45 Years, Mag Wants To Give New Meaning To 'Targeted' Marketing

In the December 10 issue of The Onion, a mock headline proclaimed "Guns & Ammo Holiday Party Exactly What You'd Expect." The implication was that the magazine is written for and by a bunch of reckless gun-toting yahoos... which, although untrue, didn't make the barb any less funny.

Ask publisher Kevin Steele about one-liners like this, however, and you get the impression that he's a little tired of addressing the topic. "It's a misconception that's perpetuated by folks who have probably never opened the magazine," he says wearily. "We are dedicated to the safe and responsible use of firearms. There is nothing in the magazine that one might view as over the top."

Steele may be a bit biased, of course, but he's clearly right. In fact, one could make the argument that Guns & Ammo is the most misunderstood mass-market title in publishing today. Myth: the magazine attracts a lowbrow audience. Reality: its readers boast a median household income of $56,800, and 69 percent are college-educated. Myth: the magazine is little more than a marketing outlet for gun manufacturers. Reality: around 40 percent of its advertising comes from non-endemic companies, with the percentage slowly increasing. "When you look at the big picture, we're pretty mainstream," Steele says.

Guns & Ammo has traveled a rocky path over the last few years as it dealt with a series of ownership-related issues. Shortly after purchasing the title from Emap USA, Primedia put G&A and its other shooting publications up for sale, resulting in a six-month period in which the mag was in ownership limbo. When they were eventually withdrawn from the market, G&A was forced to wait patiently as Primedia consolidated the publication into its infrastructure. Eventually the magazine was folded into Primedia's Outdoors group, alongside a host of fishing and hunting titles.

"It slowed us down for a little while," Steele concedes. "2002 was - how should I put this? - not as good as it might have otherwise been." G&A's fortunes have since taken a turn for the better, with ad revenue up 50 percent since 2001 and revenue per page having grown comparably during the same period.

Steele credits the magazine's unabashed enthusiast tone for its success. From the very beginning - G&A recently celebrated its 45th birthday - the magazine has considered itself more a lifestyle publication than a niche-specific one. "We're only five years younger than Playboy," Steele notes. "We were started in the same era by the same type of person." To this end, G&A decided long ago that its editorial staff had to be fans first and journalists second. "The policy has always been to hire enthusiasts and train them to be editors, rather than the other way around," he says.

In their passion for the subject matter, Steele compares G&A readers to auto enthusiasts. "Both groups are tinkerers," he explains. "They both purchase products and add aftermarket items, and they're both interested in the collectivity aspect." They're also affected by the same financial pressures - when the stock market is down, for instance, both auto and gun enthusiasts have less discretionary income and purchase fewer products. If G&A readers are different in any way, Steele notes, it is in their love for all things outdoors: "When they're not shooting or hunting, they're camping or fishing." Guns & Ammo rarely competes with auto enthusiast publications for endemic ad dollars, however. "We usually go up against the NRA membership publications, as well as Outdoor Life and Field & Stream," Steele explains, pointing to research that readers have embraced the endemic ad content. "They look at [those ads] as if they're an extension of the editorial."

For non-endemic companies, G&A aspires to compete with any publication targeting an upscale male audience, although it's hard to imagine an advertiser weighing its merits against those of, say, Fortune. Its biggest categories include tobacco and male hygiene products, and Steele is particularly proud of the mag's longstanding relationship with automotive advertisers. "Especially truck and ATV manufacturers, which you'd expect," he says. G&A recently broke into the imported truck market, adding Nissan (for the recent launch of its Titan model) to its slate of advertisers. Categories where Steele hopes to improve in 2004 and beyond include pharmaceuticals and aftermarket auto products. "We had some success with rubber [tires] and motor oils in the past, so we're not total strangers to that space," he notes.

As for the future, Steele hopes to turn his attention to brand extensions now that the magazine's place within the Primedia family is firmed up. A television show on the Outdoor Channel, Guns & Ammo TV, has exceeded ratings expectations by 43 percent during its first season, Steele says; sponsors had been promised 120,000 Nielsen-rated households per week and, through early November, the show was over-delivering by an average of 52,000 households. While G&A TV's second season won't debut until July, all ten of its sponsorships have already been sold.

"We knew the [Guns & Ammo] name had value for a TV audience," Steele crows. "Hopefully its success will let us push things forward, whether it's events or trade shows or other things of that nature."

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