Don’t risk reader relationships with “sneaky manoeuvers”

Bob Sexton

Bob SextonIf it looks like crap and smells like crap, it’s probably going to taste like crap. And who, other than your dog, really wants to eat crap?

That’s a crude analogy, for sure, but one that could be applied when judging where to draw the line in the ad/edit debate. While the fight to keep editorial separate from advertising never really goes away, every now and then something happens that brings it to the forefront of public discourse. Recently it came up in an interview between CBC journalist Wendy Mesley and Tyler Brule, the Canadian founder of luxurious design and culture magazine, Wallpaper*.  In her classic skewer-with-a-smile style, she grilled Brule on how his new up-market magazine, Monocle, blurs the ad/edit lines with advertorials made to look like the rest of the magazine. Though I haven’t seen a copy of the U.K.-based Monocle, there’s no doubt that there are more and more examples of how advertising is creeping into editorial these days (see Vice magazine’s notorious glow-in-the-dark BMW cover or the sponsored editorial that appears in Maclean’s from time to time.)

Now, the issue isn’t just academic—it has real implications on a magazine’s relationship with its readers.  A couple of years ago, the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) held a professional development session on how to maintain a clear distinction between advertising and editorial. We invited Kim Pittaway to share some of her hard won insights on the subject. Kim was the ideal person to speak, as she had experienced numerous challenges during her tenure as editor of Chatelaine magazine vis a vis the impact of advertising on editorial content. So many challenges, in fact, that they contributed to her decision to resign as editor in August, 2005 after less than a year at the helm. While many in the audience came to hear Kim dish dirt on her former employers, she managed to deflect awkward questions and keep the discussion on track.  However, she described a remarkable study Chatelaine had commissioned to look at how readers view advertising in the magazine. Focus groups looked at two versions of a recipe, both with embedded brand names (ie “Heinz” ketchup instead of just ketchup). One version had “advertisement” at the top of the page while the other didn’t. Interestingly, when the word advertisement wasn’t present, people reacted suspiciously and they were irritated both with the magazine and the advertiser, Kim said.

I know from my own experience as the associate editor of Outdoor Canada magazine, that some readers are confused, find it difficult to distinguish between ads and editorial, or even think that editorial is paid for by advertisers. Every now and then we’ll get a call from an angry reader who wants to complain about such and such article on such and such page. When we go to check on the offending material, it sometimes turns out to be an ad that clearly has nothing to do with our editorial content. So, if there are already so many chances for readers to misread or misinterpret your magazine, why risk your relationship with them by deliberately trying to confuse them with sneaky manouevers like advertorials that are poorly labeled or not labeled at all?

Of course, it’s rarely the editors who need to be convinced that keeping ads and editorial separate is important to building and maintaining a relationship with the readers. Rather, it’s the advertisers who need to realize that obvious labeling won’t harm their ad. In fact, when advertisers try to make an ad look like editorial, people feel like they’re being tricked, which does a disservice to both sides of the industry. Alternatively, if people feel they can trust the editorial in a magazine, right or wrong, they trust the ads by association. If readers don’t understand the complex process of how a magazine is put together, he or she will have faith in the ads because the editors have allowed them in the magazine. Advertising is obviously crucial for a magazine’s success. It not only pays for part, if not all, of the editorial content, it can provide a valuable function for readers. Still, trustworthy editorial content is equally instrumental to that success.

So, what’s the answer? Greater awareness and adoption of the Canadian magazine industry’s ad/edit guidelines is definitely a start. While the guidelines were originally drafted by CSME in the early 90s, they’re strictly not ours anymore. The guidelines were revamped two years ago by a task force with members drawn from the National Magazine Awards Foundation, CSME, Mags Canada and the industry at large. Editors need to know they’re good tools to use if/when they get requests they feel are, say, unpalatable. However, in order to work, the guidelines need to be more widely read, understood and followed. And not just among editors. Publishers, sales teams, ad agencies and media buyers need to get on board. For the guidelines to really have any teeth, there also needs to be some consequences. In the U.S., “repeated and willful violations” of guidelines issued by the American Society of Magazine Editors disqualifies a publication from entry into the National Magazine Awards.

Maybe it’s time that we adopt a similar policy here at home. Whatever the solution, it’s important to recognize crap when you see it.

Bob Sexton is president of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) and associate editor of Outdoor Canada magazine and