While cover advertising is still a fringe practice, many believe its potential as a high-impact, high-price marketing tool may lead to more frequent use as in-book ad pages continue to dwindle. Yet, as a brand statement, the cover remains as important as ever.
It’s a debate that the two major trade associations representing the magazine industry—the American Society of Magazine Editors and ABM, serving the consumer and B2B magazine industries, respectively—have addressed in their editorial guidelines.
For its part, ASME recently removed a strict prohibition against cover advertising—its no. 1 rule had been “Don’t Print Ads on Covers”—in favor of a softer, broader stance that could be applied to platforms beyond print. Magazines must now only “take special care to distinguish between editorial content and advertising.”
“Our core value is transparency, so one of the main questions we considered was: ‘Can you put an ad on a cover without deceiving the reader?’” says Sid Holt, CEO of ASME. “Whether you like it or not, yes, you can—it’s not a question of editorial integrity. We didn’t think maintaining the cover as an ad-free zone is central to the purpose of the guidelines.”
Similarly, ABM focuses on effective notice for readers. There’s no specific reference to covers in its guidelines, though it tries to flesh out how publishers should go about drawing distinctions between ad and edit.
Regardless of the official stance, neither ASME nor ABM think magazine covers are on the verge of selling out in any large numbers.
“You’ve always had some publishers trying to push the limits,” says Matt Kinsman, vice president of content and programming at ABM. “But I think for most organizations, this is still verboten.”
Adds Holt: “Honestly, I don’t expect to see an explosion of advertising on the cover based on the ASME guidelines. If we were going to see that, we would have seen it already.”
ASME and ABM have each addressed the issue of cover advertising in their respective editorial guidelines.
Differentiate Editorial Content and Advertising
Regardless of platform or format, the difference between editorial content and marketing messages should be clear to the average reader…Advertisements that mimic the “look and feel” of the print or digital publication in which they appear may deceive readers and should be avoided… ASME recommends the use of terms such as “Advertisement,” “Advertising” and “Special Advertising Section” for print advertising units and further recommends that these terms should be printed horizontally and centered at the top of each advertising unit in readable type.
II-6. Separation of Advertising and Editorial
e. …The words “advertising,” “advertisement,” “special advertising supplement” or similar labeling must appear horizontally at or near the center of the top of every page of [special advertising supplements or advertorials]…The same principle applies to cover wraps, flaps and other creative vehicles…
f. The layout, design, typeface and style of special advertising sections or custom publishing products must be distinctly different from those of the ABM member’s normal layout, design, typefaces and literary style…
g. Special advertising sections must not be slugged on the publication’s cover (including stickers) nor included in the table of contents. In general, the ABM member’s name or logo may not appear as any part of the headlines or text of paid material…
See For Yourself
Cover advertising has gotten more in-your-face recently. Here are a few of the most recent high-profile examples.
Almost 900,000 subscribers to Marie Claire saw this cover, sponsored by Stuart Weitzman, when they went to their mailboxes for the April issue. A more traditional editorial cover showed up when they flipped the page.
“Before we did this cover, we read through the guidelines of ASME, and we felt we were in the clear,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Anne Fulenwier, told WWD.
The magazine hasn’t put an advertiser’s name on the front page until now, but it hasn’t been afraid to experiment with creative cover sponsorships in the past. Notably, its August 2014 issue featured a denim foldout wrap sponsored by Guess. Readers had to physically tear off a paper zipper to get to the “real” cover.
Size doesn’t matter when it comes to cover ads. Time roused the ire of traditionalists in media circles when it put a thin strip promoting Verizon below the mailing label of its June 2 issue last year. Paired with a similar effort on Sports Illustrated’s cover, the move came just two weeks before its spin-off from parent company, Time Warner.
“You can either say this is a groundbreaking decision to put ads on covers after 91 years in the business or you can say this is a relatively modest reference that catches up to what’s going on in the industry,” Norm Pearlstine, chief content officer at Time Inc.
Forbes took its boundary-pushing native advertising program, Brandvoice, to another level when it put an ad for Fidelity on the cover of its March 2 issue. The coverline, pointing to native content within the magazine, was part of a larger integrated package with the sponsor, though this particular piece of the deal was simply a value-add, the company says.
Forbes tested the waters of cover advertising just a few issues prior, including a branded cover for AT&T beneath the editorial cover.
“Media innovation typically comes with hollering from a deeply rooted professional class,” Lewis DVorkin, Forbes chief product officer, wrote in a blog post explaining the Fidelity placement. “Any change in newsroom procedure riles up the old guard every time.