Furoku: The Explosion of Magazine Freebies

Free eco bags, mirrors, make-up kits, charms
21 August 2008
Magazines revive their fortunes thanks to consumer-friendly free gifts
It's been a rough decade for Japanese fashion magazines. In the ten years since the magazine market's peak in 1997, circulations have dropped a whopping 30%. The once dominant medium has seen greater competition from the internet and free weeklies. And lower consumer spending means less need for "shopping" guides. Magazines, however, have managed to retain their influence on the fashion market, as consumers try to keep up with the fashion titles on a monthly basis. The problem is that readers have become crafty in attaining the information from magazines without paying the cover price: browsing issues at bookstores for free or viewing friends' communal copies. The magazines have thus been in a need of methods to boost rack sales and increase the official print run number in order to keep advertising prices high.

As a solution to this conundrum, Japanese magazines have recently started to include freebies in each issue. These items — called furoku in Japanese — are usually cheap goods and trinkets (valued between ¥50-¥200), sandwiched between the middle-pages in the magazine. In the past, publishers could not attach goods valued over 10% of the cover price, but the Fair Trade Commission recently upped this percentage to 20%. This legal change opened the door for greater use of furoku-based sales promotion. Furthermore, furoku giveaways are just the latest step in the steady increase in "advertorial tie-up" between magazines and brands.

Although not particularly luxurious, consumers are buying magazines to get the furoku goods and then using the items in their daily lives. According to the Daily Yomiuri, the furoku strategy has had an immediate effect on magazine circulations. General-market women's magazine More increased sales by 10-20,000 copies after including a mini-bag in the July issue. Some have seen ViVi's dramatic outselling of CanCam in June as simply the result of ViVi including free charm jewelry in the issue.

The real pioneer of furoku, however, has been publisher Takarajima, whose titles come almost every month stuffed with items from collaborating brands. Constant freebies have taken Takarajima's In Red, for example, from a so-so 100,000-circulation title to top-level 300,000 title. Takarajima's Sweet has moved from 200,000 copies on average to 400,000.

More than even magazine sales, the greatest proof of the freebie boom has been the sheer amount of furoku goods seen on the street after publication. Sweet's blue furoku eco-bag from popular select shop Cher was one of the hit items of summer despite only being available as a magazine freebie. The popularity and ubiquity of the blue bag led to even bigger sales for Cher's official white canvas eco bag. The new Cher autumn catalog from Takarajima comes bundled with a real canvas Cher eco bag in a new brown colorway. Now these are hitting the streets in large numbers.

Although magazines clearly have hit gold by adding in free goods, few have asked what this recent boom means about consumer preferences. Does the interest among young women in receiving and using free goods from magazines signal a desperate "poverty" mindset? Certainly there is no "embarrassment" about using products received free and owned by at least one-hundred thousand other people. But the Japanese industry may have just found a perfect entry price for youth fashion goods: free.

Update: Things do not always go so great in furoku land. Publisher Takarajima has received 40 complaints about a "bad smell" emitting from the cloth tote-bag attached to the September 2008 issue of magazine Spring.

(Click on the Photo Gallery button at left to view a slideshow of recent furoku goods.)