Magazines Eager to Do 'Creative' Covers for Advertisers

But Editors Group Frets About Breaking Boundaries

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Magazine publishers staring down the twin barrels of recession and digital competition are showing new eagerness to involve their covers with creative advertising. That's good news for marketers trying to make an impact in print, but it's also causing concern that the ads could spoil magazines' intimate relationship with readers.

ESPN Magazine
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A recent ESPN the Magazine issue featured a fold-out ad for Powerade on its cover. (Click image to see cover folded out)

ESPN the Magazine just published a cover half obscured by a flap that's blank except for the rest of the ESPN logo and the line "You Wouldn't Want an Incomplete Cover." Open the flap, and a Powerade ad finishes the thought: "Then Don't Settle for an Incomplete Drink."

The April 3 issue of Entertainment Weekly includes a tab that says "Pull This!" The tab is part of a separate page hidden inside the cover, a two-sided ad for the ABC series "The Unusuals." Gourmet did something similar in its October 2008 issue, only inside the front cover; the cover itself showed no sign of the ad. Elle, too, published a similar unit last July, with a perforated tab on the cover, although without any text on it, that readers could pull to remove an insert promoting Victoria's Secret.

More unconventional covers
The April 2 Rolling Stone cover looks like it's been drafted into the service of the ad that follows. It includes the Rolling Stone logo and that week's cover image, a photo of two "Gossip Girl" stars. Inside, a vertical gatefold -- "Open Up," it instructs -- promotes the Mini Convertible. That's followed by the "real" cover, which shows the "Gossip Girl" photo again, along with regular cover lines.

Esquire's May issue will come perforated to split into a flip book that lets readers play mix and match with the facial features of President Barack Obama, George Clooney and Justin Timberlake; the inside front covers belong to mix-and-match ads for "Life After People" on the History Channel. Its February issue had a flap on the cover with editorial and ad content inside.

Scholastic Parent and Child just went all the way and published an ad directly on its April cover, with another one planned for May. That set off alarms around the magazine business. Covers need protection from advertisers' influence, according to industry orthodoxy, if magazines are going to retain readers' relatively strong trust.

ASME says off-limits
Now it sounds like the American Society of Magazine Editors, whose guidelines declare covers off-limits to advertisers, is gearing up to address marketers' growing familiarity with those covers.

"We want to make sure that everybody in the industry understands why the cover is important," said CEO Sid Holt. "We're happy to articulate those reasons. The ASME guidelines reflect long-standing industry practice. In the case of the cover, the use of the cover for editorial and circulation purposes is a use that's two and a half centuries old."

"Parent and Child is a black-and-white violation of the guidelines, and we will be taking the appropriate action," Mr. Holt said. "The guidelines say quite explicitly that for repeated and willful violations the magazine can be barred from competing in the National Magazine Awards."

ASME hasn't come to any conclusions regarding any other covers, but the creative cover executions by Entertainment Weekly and ESPN have been brought to its attention, Mr. Holt said. "We're going to be taking a look at them."

Skirting the boundaries
ESPN said it permitted the ad after careful consideration -- but, looking back, may have skirted the boundaries. "We would never move forward with anything we felt infringed upon the magazine's editorial integrity," a spokeswoman said.

"In retrospect, we may have pushed the envelope in this case," she said, "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 has said repeatedly that its editorial department, not the business side, is driving its cover innovations.

A spokeswoman for Entertainment Weekly said its "notch cover" ad was proper. "The ad is separate and distinct from the cover, is clearly labeled and does not have any logos, so it is very clear to our readers that this is simply an invitation to view the ad," she said. "We also made sure there was no connection between the ad and our cover subject, so we have no concerns about crossing ASME guidelines."

Rolling Stone said it published the "Gossip Girls" cover an extra time only to get the vertical gatefold done, not to otherwise involve the front cover in advertising. "The one without cover lines was printed ahead of the one with the cover lines in order to accommodate the production process we had to go through in order to get that flap," said Matt Mastrangelo, executive director-corporate sales and marketing at Rolling Stone.

"I've gotten three different e-mails from agencies that thought it was an amazing idea and amazing execution," said William Schenck, publisher of Rolling Stone.

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