May 27th, 2004

Lines Blur Between Ads and Articles

By Clayton Collins
Christian Science Monitor

The luxury truck seems to lurch from the page of Ski magazine. It’s a "surefooted
Rover," explains the copy below it. The next few pages elaborate - with
seven more invocations of the brand, seven Land Rover photos, and chunks of
text that could be called paeans to a product.

"Well-crafted lines lend a rugged but cosmopolitan look," reads one
line. Paragraphs tout the truck’s technical specifications in arcane detail.

Why so much hyping of this one particular mode of conveyance in a feature story
on Colorado travel?

Well, it could be that the freelancer who wrote this piece - and who also reviews
cars for Ski - thought the Land Rover was an important part of his travel experience.
(Efforts to reach the writer for comment were unsuccessful.) Or it could also
be the latest case study in what some observers of the industry call a troubling
trend: the peppering of magazine articles with product brand names.

"It’s across the culture," says Peter Hart, media analyst at Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in New York. "You’re seeing these tendencies
everywhere, whether it’s product placement on a sitcom or in the news."

During the ad-sales slump of the early 1990s, a few consumer magazines faced
lawsuits - and editors were fired - amid allegations that they blurred the line
between editorial content and advertising.

In 1999, Times-Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, cut a deal with
the owners of the Staples Center to share ad revenue generated by a Times Sunday
magazine that dedicated one issue to the arena.

"That was scandalous at the time," says Mr. Hart. "If it happened
now, I don’t know. I think the bar has been lowered."

Tolerance for mentioning specific products in a publication’s articles has
risen significantly in this fourth year of another ad slump, experts say, with
product placement today spilling out of the entertainment realm and deeper into
zones of supposed objectivity.

"They’re failing to inform their readers, their viewers, about how these
relationships really work," says Hart, who hadn’t seen the June/July issue
of Ski.

Any "implied endorsement" flouts the guidelines of the American Society
of Magazine Editors, says Marlene Kahan, ASME’s executive director. Though many
editors work to hold the line, she and others say, marketers are turning up
the pressure on publishers to get "added value."

"The more they can make advertising look like journalism, the better suited
they are to sell their products," says Hart. "Those boundaries have
steadily been getting fuzzier," he adds. "It’s not clear anymore,
which is exactly what advertisers want."

Readers, for their part, may be increasingly accustomed to publications in
which the stories - and not just the ads - are meant to sell an image. Custom
publishing - the production of periodicals with close ties to the firms that
commission them - has come on strong in recent years.

Nearly 116,000 such publications now exist, says Lori Rosen, executive director
of the Custom Publishing Council. That’s up 20 percent from four years ago.
Most are up-front about their sponsors, she says, though there are no industry
rules on disclosure.

"Bloomingdale’s came out with a new magazine last year," Ms. Rosen
says. "It’s called B. You can tell Bloomingdale’s is publishing it ...
but the articles are lifestyle articles that could be in any magazine."
Rosen doubts whether client-driven publications are having an influence on consumer
magazines.

ASME’s Ms. Kahan agrees. "I think in a sense you know what [a custom publication]
is, and you know it’s an advertising vehicle," she says. "But when
it creeps into, I guess you could say, ‘real journalism,’ that’s problematic."

For independent magazines, in particular, allowing marketers a stealthy foothold
represents a destructive, short-term approach that could cost them loyalty and
circulation, says Rogier van Bakel, an ad-watcher and former editor in chief
of Creativity magazine, an offshoot of AdAge.

"What good magazines have is a remarkably close relationship with readers
that no TV station and few newspapers can match," writes Mr. Van Bakel
in an e-mail. "People used to trust magazines the way they trusted a good
friend and confidant, and it takes a magazine years and years to build up that
level of trust, that credibility."

Embedding products into stories will ultimately backfire on advertisers, Van
Bakel writes, if the magazines they need squander their credibility with readers.

With regard to the Land Rover in the Ski magazine story, a staffer in Boulder,
Colo., maintains that the line between advertising and articles remains clear
and uncrossed.

"As far as I know, we assigned the piece to the writer and asked him to
choose the vehicle that would be best for the situation," says Kellee Katagi,
Ski’s managing editor. "Obviously the advertisers end up loving it,"
she says, "but the decisionmaking process didn’t include the ad department
or [influence] ad-buying decisions."

The piece is a "product story," says Land Rover spokeswoman Deborah
Sandford, who says the firm’s public relations arm, for which she works, keeps
a strict separation from its advertising division.

Ms. Sandford says she does not know whether her firm ever buys space in Ski.
(Her counterpart in advertising, Natalie Bow, confirms that it does.)

A PR practice is to "pitch a journalist to drive our product," Sandford
explains, and hope that the journalist sells the story to a publication.

"But never do the twain meet for us," she adds, "in the sense
of crossing between public relations and advertising."

Critics don’t buy it. "Whether you call it advertising or public relations
really doesn’t matter," says Hart. "[Publications are] still pulling
one on the readers, and the end effect is the same: You’re promoting a product."

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