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According to a copy of a memo on the letterhead of BP's media-buying agency, WPP Group's MindShare, the global marketer has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward editorial coverage it is not informed about in advance, "regardless of whether editorial is deemed positive or negative."
The memo cites a new BP policy document entitled "2005 BP Corporate-RFP" that demands that ad-accepting publications inform BP in advance of any news text or visuals they plan to publish that directly mention the company, a competitor or the oil-and-energy industry.
A spokeswoman for MindShare refused to comment on the memo, calling it a “client matter” and referred calls to BP.
BP: 'Unfortunate' and 'regretable'
Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, said that to his knowledge MindShare penned the memo. He called the language in it "unfortunate" and "regretable."
"This is not meant to be Draconian or to influence coverage. We are just asking for a head's up" about a cover story about the oil industry. "We never asked to read [editorial] copy in advance."
When asked what sparked the policy, Mr. Dean said the marketer hadn't had "any major issues." But, he added, as far as he knew there was a single occasion in which BP pulled a corporate ad after being alerted about an oil industry cover story and moved the ad to a later issue.
Mr. Dean said the policy involves corporate ads, not BP's retail gas advertising, and only affects advertising in major news magazines, not newspapers or broadcasts.
BP spent $95.5 million in measured media in the U.S. in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Of that, cable TV garnered the largest outlay, at $23 million; magazines came in second, at $18.6 million, followed by spot TV, at $17 million. Spending in national newspapers was $2.1 million; spending in other newspapers was nearly $1 million.
Magazines' financial situation
One former publisher and longtime magazine industry executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that “magazines are not in the financial position today to buck rules from advertisers” and predicted that such moves will continue.
The MindShare memo lays out five directives ad-accepting publishers must follow in order to comply with the policy. It also requests that publishers confirm their ability to meet BP's demands and to explain the procedures they have instituted in their newsrooms and ad sales departments to ensure such adherence.
Suspension of full ad schedule
Both broad and quite specific, the directives range from notifying the media agency prior to running any editorial that contains fuel, oil or energy news text or visuals to providing the agency the option to pull any advertising from the issue without penalty. If the ad cannot be pulled, then the agency “must receive notification immediately of the situation in order to alert BP and to manage the situation proactively,” the memo said. It also states that if MindShare is not notified of the mentions prior to the issue’s on-sale date, immediate advertising schedule suspension will “likely result.”
One executive familiar with the situation said that “this is not the first time the agency has done this on behalf of BP,” but seemed to suggest some aspects of it may be new.
Another magazine executive who had not heard about BP’s policy or of Morgan Stanley’s said his company has unwritten guidelines with advertisers from several industries, including auto, airlines and tobacco, to pull their ads if related negative stories are in the issue. These cases, the executive said, occur more with news magazines than lifestyle ones.
“I think it’s OK to have systems in place to pull advertisers out, but clearly we don’t show them stories ahead of time.” The executive called BP’s policy a "stupid request. It makes you think these guys are hiding something.”
Nearly a decade ago, a move by automaker Chrysler Corp. set off a maelstrom of reaction when it sent letters in early 1997 demanding that magazine sales staffs warn them of potentially “offensive” or “provocative” editorial. Editors’ concerns over the policy’s potentially chilling effect were realized when Hearst Magazines’ Esquire killed a short story containing homoerotic scenes, apparently to avoid losing the automaker’s business. The marketer, now known as Chrysler Group, discontinued its policy in the fall of 1997. That October, two publishing organizations, the Magazine Publishers of America and the American Society of Magazine Editors, took the unusual step of issuing a joint policy on the topic of editorial integrity that bars magazines from giving advertisers a sneak peek at stories, photos or tables of contents for upcoming issues.