Despite being announced conspicuously close to the imbroglio over the August 22 New Yorker single-sponsored by Target, and among increasing reports of deterioration of the church-state wall, the American Society of Magazine Editors
president and Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker says specific recent events did not necessarily precipitate changes to its editorial guidelines.
ASME, the editorial peer and watchdog division of the Magazine Publishers of America, announced updated guidelines
October 17 at MPA’s annual American Magazine Conference in Puerto Rico.
“We started polling our members in summer 2004,” says Whitaker. “There were growing numbers of questions being raised, and there were certainly some new trends and pressures in advertising that weren’t addressed properly in the existing guidelines.” A recent study released by Starcom USA found that 65 percent of consumers believe advertisers pay for editorial mentions.
According to Whitaker, efficiency was a driving force. “They started in the 80s as these guidelines just about special ad sections and then were added on to and they became long and complicated,” says Whitaker. “We decided that while we were at it we should shorten and revise them.”
To that end, the guidelines have been whittled down to 50 percent of their former length resulting in 10 categories over a page-and-a-half. And according to Whitaker, while an attempt was made to clarify editorial authority, a nod was also given to publishers, allowing them some flexibility as long as the fundamental rules are adhered to. “It does allow a little bit more flexibility,” he says. “At the end of the day the editors should have the final say over what’s appropriate for their magazines. They need to call the shots. But having made that clear now, we’ve introduced some flexibility in a couple of areas.”
Whitaker highlights three areas: labeling;advertorials can now be labeled “advertising” or “promotion”; adjacencies;as long as ads are not placed immediately before or after edit that mentions the same product, publishers can determine on their own how far away the placement goes; sponsorships;the guidelines now make it clear that sponsoring out-of-magazine events is fine, but a line is drawn against sponsorship of regular features.
The simplification of the guidelines, according to Whitaker, eliminates what previous versions attempted;to predict and prevent every possible violation. “The old guidelines tried to anticipate every possible way in which somebody might try to get around them. Now we’re taking a different approach which is these are the things that are clear no-nos and as long as you don’t do those, you can decide what you want to do and what’s appropriate for your magazine and we’re going to leave you alone.”
Also notable is a stance on product placement, an issue missing from previous versions of the guidelines. “We knew going into it that we would have a clear position specifically on product placement,” says Whitaker. “What we’re talking about is an advertiser pays you a sum of money to put a product in an editorial story. That’s a no-no. But if products show up in stories and it’s the editor’s choice, that’s fine.”
Three Strikes Rule
For those wondering how many times the rules can be broken, Whitaker clears that up, too. “It’s basically three strikes and you’re out. On the first two violations, we handle all our communications privately. We probably send a couple dozen violation letters out every year. We don’t go to war with each other in the press over it. If the magazine ignores our letters, they get excluded from the National Magazine Awards.”
Wondering who was the last to get booted from the awards? This Old House, before it was bought by Time Inc.
Evan Smith, ASME secretary and editor and executive vice president of Texas Monthly, emphasizes the importance of ASME taking a clear stance on the issues. “To the extent the guidelines reaffirm the importance of the separation of what happens on that side of the building and what happens on this side of the building, I’m all for it. At the same time, I’m a realist. The universe that we all operate in has changed dramatically. Some changes were necessary but on the important things, particularly product placement, we reaffirmed our position.”