What Happened to Comic Book Ads?

Have you noticed that lately, superhero comics don’t seem to have much outside advertising in them? Take this week’s releases, for example…

Legion: Secret Origin #6 cover

From DC, I looked at Legion: Secret Origin #6. (I would have liked to have examined a “regular” DC book, but I didn’t buy any this week.) It cost $2.99 for 32 pages, of which 20 were comic story. The rest broke down as follows:

  • 1 ad for the DC charity co-project “We Can Be Heroes”
  • 1 ad for the Kubert School
  • 5 single-page house ads: for the DCComics.com relaunch, the Batman crossover event “Night of the Owls”, Batman Black & White statues, DC busts (also featuring Batman), and DC digital copies
  • 2 2-page house ads: for the New 52 “graphic novels” and Flashpoint collections
  • 1 “All Access” house column

Of the three cover slots, not included in page count, one promoted DC’s presence at the C2E2 convention, and the other two were for outside websites. So out of 35 pages, 14 ad slots, 4 were likely from outside, paid sources. (I’m counting the covers and the Kubert School ad, although for all I know, that could be some kind of trade deal, since DC publishes several books by Joe Kubert.)

For Marvel, I counted The Twelve #11, also a 32-page comic for $2.99. However, it contained 23 story pages, plus:

  • 1 “story so far” page (helpful in keeping the large cast straight)
  • 3 outside ads: for a Marvel-related videogame, an Avengers movie tie-in hotel offer, and MidtownComics.com
  • 1 split ad page: trading cards (non-Marvel) and a Hulk comic house ad
  • a 2-page house ad for AVX
  • 1 house ad for an Avengers collection
  • 1 C2E2 ad

The Twelve #11 cover

Of the three cover slots, one was something about AVX — honestly, from the design, I couldn’t tell what the title of the project was — one promoted a Hulk comic, and the back cover was for Spider-Man: Season One. So out of 35 pages, 11 ad slots, 4 1/2 were likely from outside, paid sources.

I had a more “typical” Marvel comic available as well, The New Avengers #23 (because KC likes the team). It was a dollar more, $3.99, for the same length, but it only had 20 story pages. The rest were:

  • 1 “story so far” page
  • 1 promo/credits page
  • a 2-page ad for Marvel t-shirts at Walmart
  • 8 AVX promo pages

The three cover slots had the same AVX something, an ad for squishy porcupine-looking Marvel toys, and one for the new Spider-Man Marvel cartoon. This comic was not a very good deal, especially if you aren’t interested in AVX (but how can you read comics and have that be true!). There wasn’t much opportunity for it to make money for Marvel, at least in terms of ad purchases, but the increased cover price likely more than covered that.

Are superhero comic publishers less interested in selling ad space, or are outside companies no longer as interested in reaching the comic-reading audience? Since digital comics don’t carry ads, is it harder to calculate accurate readership, or are companies using that revenue to replace declining ad sales? Does advertising a tie-in product (collections, cartoons) make the company more money in the long run than selling out that space? I don’t know the answers to any of these, but I’m curious if anyone knows more.

29 Responses to “What Happened to Comic Book Ads?”

  1. Ralf Haring Says:

    Just saw something about this the other day. The Toronto Star interviewed Marvel exec C.B. Cebulski and said “What happened to all the car, junk food and video game ads? Ad sales dried up”.


  2. Shannon Smith Says:

    I just think Marvel and DC suck at the business of periodicals. They suck at getting them on the news stands, they suck at getting them distributed, they suck at promoting them and worst of all, they suck at selling ads for them. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. They could walk down to the nearest high school and borrow the annual staff and sell more ads than whoever is in charge now.

    They are not in the periodical selling business and they really stopped being in the ad bussiness when they put all their eggs in the direct market.

    Do they even sell the ads themselves anymore? I was thinking that I read somewhere that the printer handled the ads now?

  3. James Schee Says:

    There have been alot of layoffs/resignations at the big 2. I guess I wonder if the people who did the ads are even there anymore. Of course here is also the fact that the comic audience is so small it isn’t worth advertising to.

  4. sly Says:

    it’s the collateral damage of having editors from the creative side. if marvel/dc were smart, they would localize their ad sales departments & create niche advertisements in 3 or 4 different major markets. right now, they’re just moving numbers from 1 department to another.

  5. Johanna Says:

    That’s not really an explanation, though, Ralf. If I ran a company and ad sales went down, I’d be looking at my ad sales staff — do they have the tools they need to make the sales? can they use different techniques/deals to keep clients? But as James suggests, we don’t know if they’re still there.

  6. Shannon Smith Says:

    Yeah. Saying sales dried up is not a reason it’s an excuse. Times is tough all over same as it ever was. And I’m not saying that Ceblulski is hiding anything. It’s probably not his job to worry about that stuff. If Cross Stitching Quarterly can sell some ads, then Marvel and DC ought to get off their asses and sell some ads. Archie seems to do a little bit better job. Hell, a lot of the ads I see in Marvel and DC books are for Archie products so they must be doing something right.

    I just googled this but did not find much. I know I’ve read somehwere before about how the comics are printed. I think Marvel and DC send the files to the printer, and the printer sends them directly to Diamond. I wonder if the printer handles the ad sales. I know that in newspapers, a lot of smaller regional newspapers are actually printed by bigger papers and that those printers fill a lot of the ad space. This lowers the small paper’s cost to print and takes away some of the burden of selling those ads. But, on the flipside, I assume they get less of the profit as well.

    Also, think about the FCBD books. Those books have ads. Where is that ad money going? I bet it’s going to the printer.

    That’s a really interesting subject that I’d love to read about if someone like, oh… Comics Worth Reading were to investigate it. :)

  7. Johanna Says:

    Archie and DC had some kind of co-sales program a while back, if I recall correctly, where placement in the DC kids’ comics and Archie titles were sold as one unit. Plus, they swapped some ads when they did the Tiny Titans/Archie crossover.

    When I was at DC, they had their own ad sales staff. I can’t imagine them letting the printer handle ad sales.

  8. Shannon Smith Says:

    I just looked at the fine print on the most recent comics I have. (Well, two of them are my daughter’s.)

    Archie- no info at all about buying ads. Lots of info about subscriptions. Every ad in the mag is Archie related.

    Kaboom- no info at all about buying ads.

    Marvel- “For informatiion regarding advertising in Marvel Comics or Marvel.com please contact John Dokes, SVP of Integrated Sales and Marketing at jdokes@marvel.com

    DC- “For Advertising and Custom Publishing contact dccomicsadvertising@dccomics.com

    So, DC and Marvel at least have someone checking emails about ads. I assume.

    What’s “Custom Publishing”.

  9. Comics A.M. | Viz names new CEO; what happened to comic ads? | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Publishing | Johanna Draper Carlson counts the pages in some recent DC and Marvel comics and finds lots of house ads — and very few paying ones. This raises the chicken-and-egg question of whether the comics publishers are losing interest in selling ads or the advertisers are losing interest in buying them. [Comics Worth Reading] […]

  10. Ralf Haring Says:

    Custom publishing would be if a company hired DC to make a comic for them. Here’s an explanation by Jim Shooter: http://www.jimshooter.com/2012/02/made-to-order.html

  11. Brian Says:

    Here’s something else. Marvel is moving all their $2.99 books to a “self-cover” format from next week, and the upshot is that they will be removing 4 ad pages. They’ve already done this for some $2.99 books already, e.g. Spider-Man #679.1, and recent FF/Fantastic Four books as well I think.

  12. Atomic Kommie Comics Says:

    Falling circulation numbers have driven advertisers away.
    (When I was last on staff, 50,000 was reason for cancellation, not celebration.)
    In addition, advertisers have to reformat ads to match the page size unique to comics.
    Plus, I’d give odds the ad rates comics companies are offering are out of line with their sales figures, making the eyes-per-unit number unprofitable for advertisers.
    (The old mantra of “kids share comics so you get more eyes on the page than sales figures indicate” is long dead.)

  13. James Schee Says:

    I’ve sort of wondered, as a digital customer, why they don’t have ads. I use Hulu a lot to catch up on shows, or try shows out (just watched every episode of Community to date in a week) and am used to ads there.

    Surely if they can do ads to fund a 30 minute TV show, DC or Marvel could find someone to run a quick ad for a comic. Which might help bring price down?

  14. Shannon Smith Says:

    But if there sales dept. is any good they are not promoting the idea of 50,000 a month. They are promoting the entire sales of the entire line every month because it is the same ads.

    Which, makes me want to dive off into tangent land and talk about how they really should not be making these individual pamphlets all and should really be selling 1 to 3 big magazines a month. Oprah sells about 2 million copies a month but that is mostly the power of the Oprah brand. I’d argue, if you added Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, Hulk etc. (and maybe throw in some Disney) that’s a pretty powerful brand. I’d bet you’d make enough in ad sales to lower the price point and not even care much about sales from the books themselves. Which, is how the periodical business is supposed to work.

  15. Stefan Blitz Says:

    I had a discussion with a certain person at one of the Big Two in 2010 on Facebook who answered the following:

    Q: Why doesn’t advertising successfully offset the price of the books?

    A: First there is no advertising left to speak of to offset costs. Advertising is added profit and is not build into the budget.

    Q: Isn’t comics a pretty good target audience for games, movies, etc?

    A: its a visiting audience, not a dedicated one

    Q: Really?

    Most people I know that read books are decades old fans

    Are audiences not considered stable?

    A: The current comic audience is massively stable but in trying to attract a new audince there is fear of alienating the existing one.

    It’s interesting that wasn’t a concern when he launched the New 52.

    At some point I may post the entire transcript of our conversation.

  16. Jake Says:

    What does “self-cover” mean for the new Marvel $2.99 books? I haven’t bought a physical comic in about a year, so I haven’t seen any of the books they’ve already launched it on.

  17. Torsten Adair Says:

    Comics usually run two content pages for every one page of advertising. (24:12)

    The New Yorker:
    Cartoon Issue (the only one on hand)
    October 31, 2011 $5.99
    108 pages plus five covers (there’s a half-page flap on the front cover with text, the other side is advertising)

    Advertising: 23 2/3 pages (The New Yorker runs vertical strips of ads along the outer edges of the magazine)

    In-house advertising: 3 pages (mostly 1/3 strips of ads)

    Cover: 1.5 cover, 3.5 advertising

    113 pages
    27 1/6 advertising
    3 house ads
    82 5/6 content

    So there is roughly an 8:3 ratio of content to advertising.

    73% is content.

    In comics, it’s about 66%.

    How do comics from the 80s compare? I remember Marvel Mart…

    Supposedly, Elle and Vogue could be given away for free, supported completely by advertising revenue. Of course, then it would have no perceived value, and no one would read it.

    Hmm… what if all of the house ads were pushed to the back, and DC decided to advertise a preview instead of individual products?

    As for custom publishing, DC recently did run a promotion with the Justice League teaming-up with celebrity sports figures, with an 8-page (?) comics insert.

  18. Torsten Adair Says:

    “Self cover” means the cover is the same paper stock as the interior pages.

    Big Boy comics (free with purchase) did this frequently, and Gladstone tried it back in the 1990s.

    Since only one paper stock is required, it reduces costs.

    However, if the paper is cheap, then the customer feels cheated. Supposedly, DC has been doing this on the down-low for a few months, but no one noticed as the interior paper is glossy and white.

  19. Torsten Adair Says:

    Of note:

    (Archie and DC advertising team-up.)

    Archie Comics seem to carry lots of house ads as well. But then so did Harvey Comics back in the day. Gold Key was the opposite… very few house ads.

  20. Atomic Kommie Comics Says:

    “Gold Key was the opposite… very few house ads.”

    Gold Key carried very few ads…period.
    Comic stories ran as much as 31 pages (The 32nd had to be text to qualify for 2nd Class postage status, vital in those pre-Direct Market days)
    Often, the inside covers were 1-page comic features and back covers were front cover art without logos or other lettering, just a “(name of book) pin-up” caption.

  21. Atomic Kommie Comics Says:

    “How do comics from the 80s compare? I remember Marvel Mart…”

    For a period in the 1970s, a standard 36-page comic had only 17 pages of comics, a letters page, and a promo page (Bullpen Bulletins or somesuch) and the front cover, for 20 pages of editorial.
    The remaining interior (13) pages, plus back cover and both inside covers, were ads, for a total of 16 ad pages.
    Also, Marvel had an unusual policy for almost a year, requiring one page of original art be drawn sideways, so it could be used as TWO pages in the printed comic! (And Marvel got TWO pages of art for the price of one!)

    In the ’80s, editorial page count varied from 20 to 24 pages (including front cover and features).

  22. Tom Mason Says:

    My experience in ad sales is from the 1990s, but maybe insights can still be gleaned. At Malibu Comics, we had an outside agency handle ad sales on a % basis (they used a sales kit that was co-produced with Malibu). They were very good at getting video game and movie ads. Everything was done in bulk – so a company would buy an ad to run in all books appearing in, say, April, and they wanted at least 1,000,000 copies in circulation so we’d put the ad in every book – “line wide” was the term used – possible for that month. No one would ever buy an ad just to appear in one comic. If we fell short of the circulation and the ad wasn’t timely, we could bleed over into the first week of the following month. Otherwise, we’d have to make good somehow. The agency arranged for the pre-digital-age film to arrive and it was coordinated through Malibu’s manufacturing department (the folks that did the paginations, printer coordination/interaction and tech specs). The agency would then send a check to accounting with a statement. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of money – 3 color ads a month might’ve netted $25,000-$30,000 total, or roughly $300,000-$360,000 year in a strong year. The main problem in selling ads at that time was the content – almost every advertiser (because they really knew nothing about comics) was under the impression that the audience was 12-15-year-old kids, and the reality was the most of the audience was post-25. So advertisers that wanted to sell to kids were disappointed in the demographics, and advertisers that wanted that demographic didn’t believe that comics were reaching it. [It was never a problem having an ad formatted for comics. Agencies and companies are used to creating ads at all different sizes for different publications – so you could see the same ad in TV Guide, Newsweek and Rolling Stone.]

  23. Rich Vincent Says:

    Speaking as someone who has placed quite a few ads in various comics in the past 5 years, most of the assumptions here, including comics not wanting to sell ads, are way out in left field. We cut way back on all advertising 2 years ago. The primary reason for this was the economy since sales were down and consumers were not responding to ads strongly enough to justify their cost. No news there.

    This is aggravated because every publisher sells ads “line wide”, except for Marvel that also offers a “”Senior line” and “Junior Line” option. This means a full page (the only size sold) interior ad in DC and Marvel costs around $20K. Oh, for the days of Marvel Mart.

    Another troubling factor may be the habit of running continued stories. Typically ads have to be placed 2-3 months before they appear and, unless you are a major national ad agency, payment has to accompany the art. This means the advertiser has to wait at least that long for a return on their investment. When we placed ads in comics we found, much to our surprise, that when the ads finally appeared sales would dribble in over as much as several years. We are still getting new customers from ads that ran in Marvel and DC over 4 years ago. My observation is this is because many readers are holding their comics until the story line is complete before they read them.

    We simply cannot afford to wait that long for a return on our advertising investment. And, in the case of film and video game companies, who were major advertisers selling time sensitive products, the waiting time for readers to see their ad defeats their purpose.

    We’ve been able to partially address that problem by going to back cover ads, but they cost substantially more, taking us back to the first problem.

  24. Johanna Says:

    Wow, I had no idea how popular a topic this would be.

    AK, that’s a good point, about having a standard ad layout size. That’s why Rolling Stone shrunk several years back, to make it easier for advertisers to use the same ads they use in other magazines.

    The DC sales packet (for clients) used to claim either a 3x or 5x multiplier, I forget which, based on “pass-along” reading. I suspect, as you say, clients caught on to how few eyeballs they were actually reaching. Especially once you consider how repetitive the viewing is; that is, customers buy much of the line, so sales doesn’t mean reaching different viewers.

    DC also used to claim that they were one of the very few reliable ways to reach the young adult male audience. Perhaps, as Rich was kind enough to share from experience, it’s not a group that spends its money elsewhere, so there’s no point in reaching them if they won’t buy.

  25. ursus83873 Says:

    Basically comics are not books, they are magazines. A well run magazine (or even newspaper) will be at least 30% ads (not house ads, actual paying clients!) – that’s what should pay the bills, with cover price setting the percentage of take for distributers and sellers plus a little cream on top. The costs and most profits are in the bag before the thing hits the street. The lack of ads in comics is the reason the cover price is so high, because they are being produced as books not magazines.
    As for low ads sales… well first they need a team of good ad sellers. But the real uphill problem is that the direct market system creates a narrow audience for advertisers. Not only are there physically less people, but the consumer identity called “geek” is to small and specific a demographic. This combines with a snobby LCS consumer that wants prestige formats with no ads – perks that were once paid for by the ol newsrack and supermarket sale which, while unpredictable, provided the broad target that advertisers want which paid the baseline cost which made the prestige versions of books viable.
    If comics stopped being so wanky and prestige, and went back to being comic magazines that made their money from ad sales instead of unit sales, we could all be happy!

  26. Ralf Haring Says:

    I think a “well run magazine” will be trying to create a profitable digital version posthaste and not waste time trying to salvage a dieing, dead-tree, pamphlet-on-newsstand format.

  27. Ian Says:

    2 or 3 years ago Marvel was running ads every other page and the fans raised hell. I know this is a totally different market now, but I wonder if that affected anything.

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