Freelance cartoonist Alexander Matthews is published in Private Eye, The Phoenix, Prospect, The Week, The Dandy and RAC Magazine, among others. He’s also lectured in Graphic Design and illustration at Degree level and up until recently ran an Art and Design Foundation Course.
Fed up with falling sales for comics, he’s just started a campaign to improve the quality of children’s comics by making them more reliant on great content and less on cover-mounted freebies. Suggesting a change to the way in which free gifts are treated under VAT rules, he’s seeking support for the campaign – which he believes would benefit comic fans and cash-strapped parents alike…
When I go to a big newsagent or to my local supermarket I exhibit symptoms of a strange disease common to cartoonists, where we search for the magazines that feature our work even though we have no intention of buying them. As usual, I was greeted with a catastrophe. Can you spot The Beano in this display?
6.7 Promotional items in magazinesIf you link a cover-mounted item such as a sachet of perfume or a CD to a magazine, you can treat it as zero-rated if the following conditions are met:• you do not make a separate charge for it, and• issues with cover mounted items are sold at the same price as those that do not, and
• the cost to you of the cover mounted item or items included in any individual issue does not exceed:
– 20% of the total cost to you of the combined supply (excluding VAT), and
– £1 (excluding VAT).
If you’ve ever seen children looking through the shelves, you will notice that they make immediate visual appraisal at the point of sale. They generally don’t stop to consider the content, and bagging means that often children can’t flick through the mag anyway. Here’s an anecdotal case that demonstrates just that:
My girlfriend’s seven-year-old niece came to visit us recently and I decided to test out some of my thoughts about these publications. A note of caution: she is quite a reader, so perhaps that skews this experiment somewhat. First of all I gave her The Beano, which she’d never read before and she sat down and read the whole thing, picking out some of her favourite bits. She asked for more comics, so I gave her the 32 page Nuke Noodle comic, free with Dennis and Gnasher magazine this month (plug, plug).
She absorbed most of that, so I gave her Gary Northfield’s collection of Derek the Sheep and she liked that even better. All in all, she was occupied for quite a while.
Later we went to the newsagent where I let her pick out a magazine. After examining the covers, feeling the bags and checking the free gifts, she settled on a copy of Girl Talk for £3.99, with Moshi Monsters stickers and Love Heart Jewellery (which I spent the afternoon mending and re-mending as the plastic chains repeatedly broke!). The actual magazine is 34 pages of glossy celebrity-based features and fashion stuff. She’s had a look, and perhaps she’ll return to it, but I doubt it. Either the magazine is too old for her, or she’s just not that interested.
It’s my contention that these are no longer magazines with toys attached, but toys with a magazine attached. What other product do we buy not for the product itself but for something else? For the thing it comes with, not the thing itself? Perhaps a copy of a newspaper to get a cheaper bottle of water at WHSmiths, but that’s the only thing I can think of (and that’s a ploy to increase circulation figures). On top of that, if we saw the same sorts of toys in a Pound Shop, we’d probably turn our noses up at them, viewing (correctly) that they were cheap and nasty.
Yyet we spend £4 on them if they are bagged up nicely with a few glossy A4 pages? Madness. Damn you, pester power!
I believe the whole thing should have VAT charged on it: 20% on the whole £4. It’s a toy, or a bundle of toys and should be taxed as such. No toys, no VAT-journals and periodicals are zero rated.
So what would happen if VAT was charged on this toy/magazine hybrid? Retail culture at point of sale is so ingrained that it’s impossible to say what a massive change like this would mean. The aim is for companies to junk the bag and the toys and force them to treat their products like magazines and comics once more. What I want is for content to be king.
I am considering starting a campaign to ask the Government to change these rules – and I really can’t see a downside for them. They have been actively looking for new things to stick VAT on, and to improve the situation for families (granted, this is a tiny thing, but if your two kids are demanding a 3 or 4 quid mag each during the weekly shop, you’d hope they’d be getting some quality merchandise for that price, wouldn’t you?).
Ignoring the fact that this is an obvious pipe-dream, I’d say it’s also a gamble, because publishers could simply crank up the cover price and preserve the status quo, but I think that these magazines are already at the limit of affordability.
What I’d like from readers of this blog post is their comments, suggestions, thoughts and corrections. I really believe this could work and ultimately we could end up seeing more proper comics for kids on the shelves. More comics is better for you because you probably love them like me, it’s better for the british comic industry as young comic readers graduate to older comics and it’s certainly better for me, because I write and draw them for a living.
• Alexander Matthews web site is at http://alexonemillion.com and his blog is at http://alexandercartoons.blogspot.co.uk: If you’d like to talk to him about this campaign you can email him at: alexandercartoonsATgmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlexanderMat. His original post, which he has let us cross post, is here – go over and comment there, too!
• Take the VAT on TAT campabign to twitter by using the hastag #vatontat