ASME Calls ESPN, EW on the Carpet Over Covers

Inventive Ads Push Editorial/Advertising Divide too Far, Editors Group Says

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The American Society of Magazine Editors has criticized ESPN the Magazine and Entertainment Weekly for recent ads involving the magazines' covers, which are traditionally considered sacred editorial space. But some advertisers, publishers and even editors are arguing that readers are savvier than they used to be -- and that print shouldn't compete at a disadvantage to every other medium.

ESPN Magazine
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The cover of ESPN's April 6 issue.
(Click image to see cover folded out)

The cover of ESPN's April 6 issue was half-obscured by an ad flap that said "You Wouldn't Settle for an Incomplete Cover," and, less prominently, "Advertisement." Opening the flap revealed the rest of the ad, which finished the thought: "Then Don't Settle for an Incomplete Drink."

Entertainment Weekly's April 3 issue included a cover tab on top that said "Pull This!" Following those instructions revealed a loose ad page, promoting "The Unusuals" on ABC, that had been tucked inside the cover.

Violations of guidelines
Now the magazine editors society, usually called ASME, has called both ad units violations of guidelines designed to protect the industry's editorial reputation among readers. "Not only does the flap constitute a misuse of the cover for advertising purposes," ASME told ESPN, "but the copy reading 'You Wouldn't Settle for an Incomplete Cover' acknowledges that the flap impinges on the cover."

"The copy is also clearly and inappropriately intended to direct consumers away from editorial content," the society added, "toward the advertising on the reverse of the flap."

ASME was less sure what to make of EW's ad, telling the magazine it wanted to "discuss" it. "ASME concluded that the cover is a violation of the guidelines because the cover notch and ad copy ('Pull This!'), which directs consumers to an ad, serve no apparent or conceivable editorial purpose," the society said. "But the cover execution is relatively novel, and ASME wants to hear what the magazine has to say about it."

'May have pushed the envelope'
An ESPN spokeswoman referred back to an earlier statement admitting a little uncertainty. "We would never move forward with anything we felt infringed upon the magazine's editorial integrity," she told Ad Age last month. "In retrospect, we may have pushed the envelope in this case, but we continue to innovate and experiment, both editorially and in our advertising, to deliver one of the most compelling magazines on the market."

Esquire Magazine
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A recent cover of Esquire magazine also featured an ad fold-out.
(Click image to see cover folded out)

EW Publisher Scott Donaton, the former editor-turned-publisher of Ad Age, said the magazine hadn't done anything wrong. "We would never do anything to confuse our audience," he said in a statement, "but we will continue to seek fun and innovative ways to engage our readers and work with our partners."

Ad buyers didn't seem as concerned as ASME. "One would hope that the editor is more in touch with his or her readership than a governing body," said George Janson, managing partner and director of print communications at Mediaedge:cia. "Advertisers and agencies are starting to demand the same types of integration found in TV and online. The big watch-out is that once you compromise reader trust or your integrity, it's hard to get it back. None of the units I've seen seem to do that."

Magazines have been showing new willingness this year to involve their covers with advertising, despite ASME guidelines limiting the front cover and spine to editorial purposes.

Not much leverage
ASME doesn't have much leverage against magazines that defy those guidelines beyond banning "repeated and willful" violators from competing in the National Magazine Awards. Recognizing that, the society is also trying to argue its position with a new statement on its website. The cover is the most important editorial page, as well as a brand statement, it said. "Advertising on the cover suggests editorial endorsement of advertised products, indicates that editorial coverage is for sale and threatens editorial independence."

The policing of the boundary between edit and ad space has been heating up, particularly since the recession tore a chunk out of ad budgets and intensified magazines' competition against other media. Esquire's February issue had a flap centered on the front cover; opening the flap revealed quotes from articles in the issue and an ad for the Discovery Channel series "One Way Out."

Scholastic Parent and Child went all the way and published an ad directly on its April cover; it has another one planned for May. ASME has said it plans to take "appropriate action" on Parent and Child's "black-and-white violation."

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