Microsoft's massive ad campaign promoting Windows 8 has arrived in magazines from publishers including Hearst, Time Inc. and Conde Nast. But glossy promotions fixed to the front of Conde Nast's December issues seem to push boundaries that magazines have long observed.
The promotions, full pages attached to the covers of 14 titles from Allure to Wired, show the new Windows 8 Start screen tailored for most of the magazines' top editors. Glamour, for example, depicts a Start screen for Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive with items such as highlights from a magazine event, a tweet that Windows 8 pulled in from @glamourmag, a December Issue Sampler for Windows 8, the Windows camera app, a special edition of the magazine and a holiday-party reminder from the new Windows 8 Calendar app.
Editors traditionally avoid involvement in any paid ads that their magazines run, part of their effort to let readers know that they're not under marketers' thumb. Paid ads fixed to magazine covers are also generally required to be flagged as advertisements, according to guidelines from the American Society of Magazine Editors. The Start screen promotions are not.
But the cover attachments aren't paid ads at all, Conde Nast said -- just the company's own initiative to tell readers about its content on Windows 8. There were "no advertising dollars involved," a Conde Nast spokeswoman said in an email. Microsoft's paid ad campaign elsewhere in Conde Nast magazines is "separate and distinct," she said.
The covers are, however, "clearly coordinated" with the paid ads, the spokeswoman said. They are "tied together under the umbrella of our holistic relationship" with Microsoft, she added.
Starcom MediaVest Group, which handles Microsoft's ad planning and buying in the U.S., described its "campaign and partnership" with Conde Nast as a "groundbreaking multifaceted paid program with nonpaid elements."
Robin Steinberg, exec VP-director of publishing investment and activation at MediaVest, said in a statement that the collaboration includes covers -- "the highest-profile real estate of a magazine," she noted -- as well as in-book ad pages, online ad units, apps and video. "The covers were created to inspire, entertain and delight the consumer, while driving awareness for the launch of the Windows 8 platform and the Conde Nast apps," she said.
"We are proud to partner with Conde Nast as they represent agents of change who recognize the need to push the boundaries to deliver powerful, arresting and first-to-market executions," Ms. Steinberg added.
Taken as a whole, it's the kind of creative collaboration that marketers and media agencies often say they want from print. Many buyers and even some publishers argue that magazines' strictest traditions of quarantining ads from editorial elements have come to unnecessarily hurt their case with marketers. While a recent episode of ABC's "Revenge" turned over all its ad time to Target and Neiman Marcus commercials starring "Revenge" cast members, magazines still try to make sure a couple of pages separate ads from articles discussing similar products.
Now the question is how meaningful a separation can exist between the paid and nonpaid elements in an overarching program with advertisers. How "separate and distinct" can they really be? Would the nonpaid elements exist without the nearby payment?
A rival publisher said he was skeptical that Conde Nast would spend so much money now to promote its still-fledgling Windows 8 presence without a big, related ad buy. "I find that really hard to believe," he said. "That kind of stuff just doesn't happen."
Conde Nast's Windows 8 content does not yet include full issues for sale -- just a selection of themed one-shots for $6.99 and issue samplers containing as few as three articles.
A Conde Nast spokeswoman said full editions will soon become available to buy through Next Issue Media, an industry consortium that sells app editions. Conde Nast has heavily supported the iPad and other platforms, she added, citing significant ads for its iPad editions inside its magazines as well as in The New York Times and the trade press.
Some editors at Conde Nast were upset about the cover promotions, company insiders said. Others, however, were happy to have the opportunity to tell readers about a new platform. "We often cover stuff that later is part of an advertiser conversation," one editor said. "I am not privy to those conversations. So I really don't have any knowledge of that . I was offered the opportunity to tell people about cool content and engagement."
The notion of a paid program with nonpaid elements raises questions, but it's legitimate for a publisher to use its covers to market its digital content, said Sid Holt, CEO at the American Society of Magazine Editors.
"Magazines frequently run stories about companies that advertise in the same issue -- magazines put actors on the cover for movies advertised inside, for example -- and we rely on editors not to let that influence them," Mr. Holt said. "So the issue here is , was the decision to use cover tip-ons to promote Windows 8 linked to the Microsoft advertising inside the magazines? Conde Nast says not. Aside from any advertising buy, the company does have perfectly good reasons to promote Windows 8."
Three of Conde's most powerful editors do not appear in their magazines' Windows 8 promotions: Vogue's Anna Wintour, Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter and The New Yorker's David Remnick. The Start screen for The New Yorker, for example, pictures magazine mascot Eustace Tilley instead.