A content producer—whether a magazine editor or a network producer—would like to believe that the content they create can be distributed to consumers without input or intrusion from the advertising side of the business. It’s the great ethical ad/edit divide that our collective media industry has lived and died by for years.
But that immovable boundary has in fact shifted. Examples have trickled out over the years, most recently with magazines like ESPN the Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Scholastic Parent & Child featuring ads on their covers. Now comes a report from Mediaweek that American Media’s Shape is under fire by the American Society of Magazine Editors for its May issue—featuring TV personality Ellen DeGeneres on the cover—which the group contends violates its editorial guidelines. Immediately following the cover and abutting the feature story about her are ads for Vitamin Water that include DeGeneres as the spokesperson. According to the report, DeGeneres is wearing CoverGirl makeup in the cover photo and the issue includes a CoverGirl ad with DeGeneres in it.
AMI executives defended the ad/edit execution, indicating that Shape landed DeGeneres for the cover story “long before the ad deal happened.” [More defense from AMI here.] ASME CEO Sid Holt, however, says the issue appears to breach the group’s guidelines. “The issues raised by the Shape piece have to do with editorial decision making,” he tells FOLIO:. “Did the story run because the editor thought it was worthwhile or because the advertiser paid for it? If readers have reason to suspect that editorial decisions are being made simply to sell advertising, not only is the integrity of the publication degraded but the value of the publication to marketers is destroyed.”
(UPDATE: Another example that some might argue is a transgression of the ad/edit guidelines is Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner’s participation in vodka maker Stolichnaya’s new “Would you have a drink with you?” ad campaign, which includes a TV spot as well as print ads that will appear in a number of publications including Playboy. For the record, though, Hefner, like other celebrity magazine execs, has appeared in a number of other campaigns over the years. Playboy tells me this latest campaign doesn’t affect the magazine’s editorial standpoint.)
This type of edit bending happens across media—not in just magazines. For example, I listen to New York sports talk radio station WFAN to and from work each day. The on-air personalities transition from their commentary to reading ads chock full of personal sentiment all the time.
And it happens in TV, too. I was watching the “America: The Story of Us” series on the History channel last night (yes, I skipped the Lost finale) and was confused when the program went black like it was cutting to a commercial but faded in again with a clip of a pair of historians (who were featured in the program) talking about how the American colonies initially existed for the economic benefit of England. The clip transitions to an ad for Bank of America, which sponsored the series. (Click here to see the ad.)
I changed the channel once I realized that the History Channel-produced segment was in fact a Bank of America ad. I was put off by it.
How many times does this same thing happen in print media? Do you notice? Do you care? ASME’s Holt says that while product placement might make sense in other media when a distinction can be drawn between entertainment programming and news/information, that distinction is harder to make in print.
“Most magazine advertisers and publishers understand the value of distinguishing between ad and edit,” he says. “Tens of thousands of pages are published every year that adhere to industry standards. Exceptions are just that—exceptions, not the new normal.”