Advertisers Want Reassurances From Rolling Stone

Surprised by Magazine's Silence

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Rolling Stone's Dec. 4, 2014 issue, where the now retracted campus rape story ran.
Rolling Stone's Dec. 4, 2014 issue, where the now retracted campus rape story ran.

Media-buying executives who steer brands' ad budgets say they're frustrated that Rolling Stone's ad team has not reached out in the wake of a blistering Columbia University School of Journalism report detailing the magazine's "journalistic failure" in its now-retracted story about rape on college campuses.

"They should have emailed a copy of the Columbia Journalism report with a mea culpa assuring advertisers what steps they are taking to ensure this doesn't happen again," a media-buying executive told Ad Age.

"I'm shocked the magazine's business side isn't calling agencies and setting up meetings," another marketing executive said.

A spokeswoman for Rolling Stone said the magazine is "always in close contact with [its] clients," but declined to elaborate further. Rolling Stone's ad sellers aren't necessarily avoiding the topic when talking to advertisers, according to one magazine staffer. This person said the magazine is talking to clients about the matter when it comes up during regular business meetings.

So far, Rolling Stone's advertisers are sticking with it. The same media-buying executives who expressed dismay over the magazine's radio silence said their clients that advertise in Rolling Stone have not contacted them about pulling ads from the magazine. That could change, however, if the media-buying execs suggest to clients that they reconsider their investments in the magazine.

"If this festers, it could draw the attention of advertisers who might not want to be in a magazine full of controversy," said Steven Cohn, editor in chief of Media Industry Newsletter, which covers magazines.

Rolling Stone is picking up the pieces after the release Sunday of a Columbia report that describes in great detail the missteps that led to Rolling Stone publishing an article about a brutal gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia. The alleged victim's claims proved hard to substantiate upon further scrutiny. On Sunday, Rolling Stone retracted the story.

"We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students," Will Dana, Rolling Stone's managing editor, said in a note posted to the magazine's website.

Phi Kappa Psi said Monday that it planned to pursue legal action against the magazine.

Ad sellers at Rolling Stone have weathered a number of controversies in its nearly 50 year history. The magazine, for instance, drew intense flak in July 2013 over its portrayal of Boston bombing suspect Jahar Tsarnaev, who critics said looked like a pop star on Rolling Stone's cover.

Despite the criticism, Rolling Stone editors didn't back down.

"The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone's long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day," they said in a statement at the time.

It's that "commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage" that often courts controversy and attracts advertisers. "Brands that advertise in Rolling Stone sometimes do so to be close to provocative journalism," a media executive said.

Provocative journalism can certainly draw a crowd. The campus-rape story attracted more than 2.7 million views, the most for any non-celebrity story Rolling Stone has published, according to the Columbia report. Overall traffic to Rolling Stone's website got a bounce last November, when the story was published online.

The site is also growing as a whole. Unique U.S. visitors on desktop and mobile to have doubled in the last year to 15.8 million in February, according to ComScore, an analytics firm.

(Interestingly, Rolling Stone's Dec. 4 print edition, where the retracted article ran, sold fewer newsstand copies than normal at 85,799, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, which tracks print circulation. During the last six months of 2014, Rolling Stone sold an average of 87,288 newsstand copies of each issue.)

Controversy over Rolling Stone's provocative journalism usually abates quickly and has few, if any lasting effects on the magazine's business, according to Mr. Cohn. Despite trepidation from some advertisers over the Tsarnaev cover, Mr. Cohn said ad pages weren't negatively effected in the aftermath.

"Typically, time heals with these kinds of things," he noted.

Starbucks, Levi's and Apple -- all recent advertisers in Rolling Stone's print edition -- did not respond to Ad Age's emails requesting comment.

A former marketing executive suggested media buyers could use the crisis cynically, to negotiate cheaper ad rates from the magazine. "You could sit on approval and see how hard they'll work commercially to restore client-agency loyalty," this person said. "So they could be looking for short term added value or price reduction."

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