|Lexus is targeting magazine editors with its latest marketing strategy.
Flip a page, and there's an article about a hot New York eatery; a photo shows a Lexus SC 430 parked in front.
Coincidence? No way. This hypothetical magazine is chock-full of product placements for Toyota Motor Corp. Its luxury division is asking several national magazines to use Lexus vehicles to illustrate stories in "groundbreaking" ways, said Deborah Wahl Meyer, Lexus division's vice president of marketing.
The practice is common in movies and TV shows. But critics say the expansion of product placement into print is a slippery slope that could turn print journalism into just another shill game.
Ms. Wahl Meyer won't say which publications might sign such deals.
"In TV, product placement has really stepped up," she said. "That's paid for and accepted by the public. It has become pretty widespread. There's a lot of opportunity to do that in the print world, too."
Auto enthusiast magazines routinely borrow vehicles from automakers to illustrate articles. There is nothing subliminal about such practices, since the vehicles themselves are the subject of the articles. Newspapers and consumer magazines also borrow vehicles to do car reviews.
But the Lexus marketing gambit, first outlined in a June 27 article in Business Week, suggests that automakers might lobby magazines aggressively to use vehicles to illustrate articles that aren't about cars.
If a magazine does a story about fashion and needs a car that fits into the background of the fashion shoot, for example, Lexus would want to supply that car.
A key question is whether Lexus or any other auto brand would withhold advertising dollars unless a magazine agrees to use its products. Lexus said it wouldn't happen.
General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group have said they aren't pursuing print product placement. But if a magazine comes looking for help, they're happy to oblige.
"If a magazine came to us and said, 'We want a Mustang,' we would work with them to make that happen," Ford spokesman Dave Reuter said. "But it's not part of our media buy. It's always initiated by the publication and not by us."
Ms. Wahl Meyer declined to indicate whether Toyota would pay for product placement or make advertising conditional upon product placement. Lexus spokesman Bill Ussery later said the company would not adopt such practices.
"I don't think you can pay any magazine or any editor to place your product in there," Mr. Ussery said.
Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., is troubled by the Lexus initiative. He said other advertisers already buy their way into editorial space.
Beauty and fashion magazines are likely candidates for such product placement, he said, but it's something that few in the magazine world want to talk about.
A spokeswoman for Time magazine last week said that it does not accept product placement.
A spokesman for Conde Nast Publications, which publishes numerous high-profile fashion, travel and lifestyle magazines, declined to comment.
Mr. Husni said some advertisers refuse to buy magazine ads unless a publication promises to place a product or write favorable stories about it. Mr. Husni said he doesn't know whether any automakers have done so.
But he fears this practice might catch on: "Could you imagine if the auto industry said that the only way we'll advertise in Automotive News is if you write something good about our cars?"
What remains murky is whether Lexus would pay directly for a product placement, or if placement might be included as a condition of selling advertising.
Ms. Wahl Meyer insisted she's not pushing product placement on anyone. She said the response from publications to her idea has been "fantastic." Magazine editors are coming to Lexus with ideas, she said. She would not identify the publications.
"I'm not talking about pushing anyone to do this," Ms. Wahl Meyer said. "We highly respect what a journalist and editor do. We're not talking about crossing any boundaries that are well established."
But what happens when the territory is murky -- for example, a nonautomotive publication that publishes a column about cars?
At Jane, a New York women's fashion magazine, auto columnist Annemarie Conte says an automaker approached her when she started writing her column, "Drive," last September.
The automaker, which she would not identify, offered her vehicles for any photo shoots she might need to accompany a column. She declined. She says Jane does not accept product placement by advertisers.
"It's the idea of devaluing the legitimacy of the journalism you're doing," Ms. Conte said. "If we start taking product placement for one part of the magazine, we have to take it for all of it. I want readers to know my content hasn't been dictated by advertising."
The American Society of Magazine Editors opposes product placement in magazines, said Marlene Kahan, ASME's executive director. She declined further comment, noting that the organization is revising its guidelines and will publish additional rules on product placement this year.
Its current guidelines spell out how magazines should differentiate advertising from editorial. It recommends that ads should not be placed next to related articles in a manner that implies editorial endorsement of the advertised product. That includes advertising that features the same celebrity or product image as the cover image.
The organization also suggests that an advertiser's name or logo not be used on any editorial pages in a way that suggests sponsorship of those pages.
But magazines are testing those limits. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine positioned a full-page Grand Cherokee ad just inside its cover, which featured actress Angelina Jolie.
At the time, Ms. Jolie was starring in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, which featured the actress driving a Jeep.
Jane does not place any brand names on its cover -- especially those of its advertisers, Ms. Conte said. But she fears many publications will give in to pressure for fear of losing advertising dollars. "People inherently don't trust journalism and see it as entertainment," she said. "This will just perpetuate that."
Advertisers do have leverage. In 2003, 54% of magazine revenue came from advertising, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey conducted for the Magazine Publishers of America, a trade association.
But Ms. Wahl Meyer said product placement is a good thing. "In a business like this, it's all about creative. If no one tried anything new, it'd be a boring business."