August 9th, 2004

Blurring the Line?; Magazines Face New Pressure as Marketers Seek to Blend Advertisers With Content

By Brian Steinberg and James Bandler
Wall Street Journal

The latest issue of Country Living magazine carries an eight-page advertising insert from Home Depot Inc. and its EXPO Design Center. On a facing page, the magazine displays a feature story describing how “with the help and careful planning of EXPO Design Center, a dreary kitchen turns into an efficient workspace.”

Such juxtapositions are considered by many in the media industry to be a no-no, violating generally agreed upon boundaries between editorial content and advertising. Indeed, in this case, a spokeswoman for the magazine says it was a coincidence, not the result of a deal. But such juxtapositions are just the kind of editorial mention that marketers love to have as they seek to stand out from the advertising clutter.

Many advertisers are enjoying new opportunities to embed their marketing messages into TV shows, videogames, movies and other programming. That’s emboldened some to try to mix ad messages and content in magazines as well—such as running ads next to magazine stories about the same product, getting products mentioned in stories, creating contests linked to magazines, and running ads that look like magazine layouts—all of which could blur the traditional line between editorial and advertising.

The American Society of Magazine Editors for years has maintained guidelines for upholding that separation. Now it says it’s preparing to re-evaluate those guidelines. ASME’s president, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker, says the group isn’t seeking to toughen or loosen the standards, but to eliminate “grey areas” in which content and advertising can blur. “Just the fact that some of this has happened in TV means that advertisers are starting to push a little harder” for similar treatment in magazines, says Mr. Whitaker. Many newspapers are facing similar advertiser pressure.

One area in particular that ASME will examine are the new “shopping” magazines, such as Hearst Corp.’s Shop Etc. and Cargo and Lucky from Advance Publications Inc.’s Conde Nast, says Mr. Whitaker. Lucky, for example, resembles a mail-order catalog, featuring phone numbers for merchandise orders. Mr. Whitaker says the re-evaluation, first reported by the Delaney Report, a media and marketing newsletter, will take a year or longer.

A Country Living spokeswoman at Hearst, its publisher, says the ad and article fell within ASME guidelines. She says there was no coordination between the magazine’s publisher and the editorial staff. She calls the adjacency “purely coincidental,” saying the magazine’s ad staff didn’t know that the editorial staff was doing an article involving Home Depot, and that the advertising insert was put in after the magazine was printed in one of the few places in the magazine where inserts can be put.

Though he hasn’t yet seen the advertisement, Mr. Whitaker says the Country Living example sounds like an area “where a reasonable reader might think there was some kind of trade-off and that there was deliberate adjacency. When you have editors endorsing a product and you have an ad next to it, it looks a little fishy.”

Although ASME has no formal means to enforce its edicts, it does preside over the annual National Magazine Awards, which are highly valued in the magazine world. A magazine that violates the guidelines risks being declared ineligible for the awards or kicked out of the society.

Some big-name titles, including Wenner Media’s Rolling Stone, have received a warning letter from ASME. When DaimlerChrysler AG learned that actress Angelina Jolie would be on the cover of Rolling Stone last summer, the car maker saw a unique opportunity to get a message about its Jeeps to the magazine’s readers. So Jeep bought an ad featuring Ms. Jolie on a fold-out page attached to the cover; the ad depicted her in her “Tomb Raider” movie role, Lara Croft.

ASME guidelines state that ad pages should not be placed adjacent to related editorial material in a manner that implies editorial endorsement, “including advertising that features the same celebrity or product image as the cover image.” (Among other ASME rules: no ad or purely promotional contest may be promoted on the cover or in the table of contents, including cover stickers and other “onserts”; ad pages should look distinctly different than editorial pages, and if they don’t, they must be clearly labeled as ads.)

Wenner apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. But the advertiser was mystified. “I don’t get it,” says Jeff Bell, a vice president of Chrysler and Jeep who oversees marketing and product development for the brands. He didn’t think the ad would suggest that the company had any influence over any interaction Rolling Stone had with Ms. Jolie in preparing the cover story. “Did we tell them, ‘No, please ask her if she likes Jeep?’ It’s an interview. She’s going to say what she wants to say.”

Marketers are being motivated largely by the need to get more bang for their advertising buck. Increasingly, they need to prove that their ad efforts boost sales, drive market share and increase brand recognition. According to companies that buy ad space, advertisers often ask to have products mentioned in magazine articles or have their logos or brand names affixed to the cover in some fashion.

Magazine publishers “are under a lot of pressure right now, and quite frankly, I don’t think many are delivering,” says Steve Moynihan, executive vice president and managing director at Havas SA’s MPG, which places ads for Volkswagen AG among others.

The pressure from advertisers is putting magazine editors in a tough spot, too. Some say the ASME rules give them a way to reject advertisers’ demands without offending, and they welcome greater clarity and enforcement.

Stephen Shepard, editor-in-chief of Business Week, said business publications generally do a good job at standing up to advertisers. “We write about advertisers all the time and the church-state rules got fixed early on, and are well understood.”

Kim France, editor-in-chief of Lucky says ASME “is totally confused by us, but they see that we’re the future.” She bridles at the perception that the shopping-oriented publication is blurring lines between advertising and editorial. In fact, she says the magazine’s “market editors,” who scour the fashion world for the best products, “have experienced pressure in some of the ugliest ways from advertisers.” After learning that their products aren’t getting mentioned, some advertisers have suggested that advertising spending will be curtailed, Ms France says, declining to identify the advertisers. “We have always pushed back.”

Yet some publications do seem to be accommodating at least some of advertisers’ demands, although the magazines generally deny that they have compromised any standards. Playboy Enterprises Inc.’s Playboy let Tommy Hilfiger Corp. use Playmates in print ads. “Readers are very savvy—when a Playmate is featured in an ad, it certainly gets noticed, but there isn’t any editorial endorsement,” said Diane Silberstein, the magazine’s publisher, via e-mail.

Modern Bride, published by Conde Nast, featured a small ad for a Target Corp. bridal registry on the spine of its June/July issue. The magazine’s publisher said the practice was “not intrusive.”

Last year, SABMiller PLC’s Miller Brewing placed an eight-page advertorial in male-oriented Dennis Publishing magazines such as Maxim and Blender featuring bawdy, illustrated tales of guys who partied in New York City, all with the humor and tone of features in the magazine. The ads were “designed to break into the editorial consciousness” of the magazines, according to a news release announcing the initiative. A spokesman for Dennis declined to comment.

A booklet sponsored by Motorola Inc. appearing in a recent issue of the New Yorker featured cartoons resembling the ones in the pages of the venerable title. Each cartoon page in the booklet is clearly labeled “advertisement.” David Carey, publisher of Conde Nast’s publication, said New Yorker cartoonists have been doing advertisements since the days of the late William Shawn, one of the magazine’s legendary editors. “Today, we do this from time to time, and every page is clearly labeled advertisement, so readers know this is not normal editorial,” he said.

Even ad-space buyers say a concrete body of rules can only help publications whose readers view them as authorities and taste-makers. “I think it’s critical that the ASME guidelines exist, because that way you maintain the integrity of the medium,” says Brenda White, director of magazine investment at Starcom USA, a unit of Publicis Groupe SA.

Meanwhile, if advertisers can’t get what they want in print, they may look elsewhere. DaimlerChrysler’s Mr. Bell says he has shifted spending slightly away from network TV and magazines to “experimental” media such as the Internet and videogames. Traditional publications should be more flexible, he says. “Everything else in our reality—whether it’s the Internet, or cable, or movie product placement or TV product placement—is saying that there are natural and organic ways for the two to come together.”

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