In a hopelessly comma-heavy, coma-inducing and tediously legalistic way, numerous Australian laws state that it is illegal for a publication (or any company) to lie about the size of its audience (or anything, really) to get advertisers (or any kind of investment).

But does that stop some of these publications? Nope.

Suppose my friend, Kevin, has a mannequin repair business and is contacted by a publication, Missing Limb Monthly, claiming to have a circulation of 5200. Kevin has never heard of the publication (red flag!) and when he asks about an audit he is given the runaround (abort! abort!). Kevin is not sure but eventually they call back and give him a really good deal – a discount from the asking price of $4950 for a two-page ad down to $1500 – so he ends up advertising with them.

But a few months down the track, Kevin finds he gets no increase in business. In fact, it even drops off a little bit (possibly due to pulling ads from other real publications). Kevin goes back to the publication and further queries the circulation figures, demanding proof. They fob him off, but he finds out through a mate in the industry that it probably only has a circulation of around 700.

So how do you catch these unscrupulous publications – or even those pretending to be publications – lying about their circulation?

Well, the most obvious and best way is to see if they are audited or not. That way, you have access to the independently verified information on which to base a decision.

The Audited Media Association of Australia is the only official body in Australia carrying out independent audits. This organisation independently scrutinises the circulation claims of publishers, enforcing the rigorous rules and standards set by the industry. A willingness to be audited demonstrates a publisher’s integrity.

If they are not audited, then it’s not really worth it to advertise with them. But if you feel a desire to go all gumshoe and expose an unaudited publication on the spot – then there are a few tricks you can try to catch them out.

Firstly, you can discount the circulation by as much as the price. Meaning if they’re willing to do a 50 per cent discount on the cost of an ad, they probably got to 50 per cent of who they say they do. If Kevin had realised this, he might have been a bit suspicious about a 70 per cent discount.

There is also the old insert trick. To pull off this one – see what their price is for an insert. Note if they ask about weight, because it’s a real red flag if they don’t seem interested. Then check if the quoted price seems low for each copy they claim to send. If he had asked about this, Kevin might have been about to figure out that – with Australia Post rates these days – they couldn’t afford that price per copy if they were actually sending each one out.

Gotcha!

But neither of these detective tricks is a substitute for an audit. By all means, expose these liars for the criminals they are, but always rely on an audit before you commit to investing in anything more than a deerstalker hat or hiring an Agatha Christie-style parlour.

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