January 19, 2008

Ad or editorial content – Who can tell?

Reading through the latest edition of Glamour, a popular magazine among Britain’s female population, I could not help but ask myself the following question:
Who is behind this magazine? Professional journalists or true marketing geniuses?
Despite the huge amount of paid-for ads, hidden (and not-so-well-hidden) advertising is spread all over the magazine – over 66 out of 216 pages to be precise.
‘Dressed’ as journalistic content, these hidden ads can be found all over the magazine: in photo series about fashion trends, tips about the right make-up, book reviews, travel or carrier tips.

It is not exactly big news that magazines and especially those for women are full of advertisements, but the way sales messages are brought to the reader and the proportion they have taken on have definitely changed. According to Michael A. Clinton, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Hearst Magazines „they have become much more complex and sophisticated.“

One form of advertising that has become particularly popular is the so-called advertorial, where advertisers simulate editorial content to promote their products by using, for example, the magazine’s writing style or the same layout.

That this kind of advertising is ethically dodgy – for both sides: the advertisers and the publishers allowing the advertisers to simulate their product – may not be that obvious, but in my opinion this kind of advertising leads to one of the most important ethical questions for future discussions: how far should publishers and advertisers be allowed to go in fooling their audience?

May be this statement that I found on the website of Advertorial.org, an organization that designs advertorials, makes the ethical dilemma clearer:
“It is widely known that people give a lot more credibility to good editorial content than to paid advertisements. After all, anyone can claim that their own product is the best. But editorial content suggests that someone else has endorsed your product or service.”

It suggests that someone else (the journalist) endorsed the product or service!
The advertisers use the credibility that the magazine has earned over the past to trick readers and dispose their products.

The result of the increasing amount of advertorials and things alike is that the line between editorial content and advertisement (almost) disappears, which can lead to the loss of a magazine’s credibility. This is for example why 8 out 10 Americans questioned in a RTNDF study believe “that advertisers have an undue influence over editorial content”.

Losing credibility and their readers’ trust is definitely not something any publisher would aim for, but it seems that the competition for advertisers, or let’s say their money, does not leave them with too many choices. Pushed by marketers and advertisers, publishers even put their own journalists on the job to create advertorials.

According to David Carr, writer for The New York Times, this pressure also works the other way round as publishers use hidden ads to win advertisers for their magazines:

“Behind the four walls of many publishers, especially in the women's magazine category, there are frequent trades of editorial coverage for advertising, but it is nothing explicit - beauty and fashion producers who do not advertise will soon notice that their products are almost never featured.”

Although it is considered unethical according to the American Society of Magazine Editors as well as to the German Press Complaints Commission to mislead the audience about the intentions behind a publication, to mix editorial content with advertisements or to assign journalists to create advertorials, publishers often decide to ignore these guidelines and instead go for the money.

This tactic may surely works for the moment, but I believe that in the end it will bite especially the publishers in their behind. Because reading an article for 15 minutes and then having to discover that has been nothing else than an ad, is not exactly what readers wish for – as a result they will probably do exactly what advertisers did already years ago: turn their back on magazines that are overloaded with ads and look for magazines that are credible.

Read David Carr’s full article about ads and magazines:
The Media Business: Advertising; To Sell the Ads, Eager Magazines Write the Copy

Another blogs on this subject: New Media Musings

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