The news that BP has demanded publications notify it in advance of any coverage of the company, its rivals or its industry-and give it the option to pull ads "without penalty"-came hot on the heels of Morgan Stanley's threat to yank ads from issues of publications in which it receives negative coverage. The BP policy was first reported on AdAge.com, the Web site of Advertising Age.
Both companies insist their intention is not to interfere with editorial content, but rather to be given the "courtesy" of knowing the editorial environment into which their ad will be placed, a factor media buyers say is crucial to an ad's effectiveness. Yet, industry veterans feel that such policies can threaten editorial integrity and audience relationships.
"It raises ethical issues," said Steve Shepard, former editor in chief of McGraw-Hill's BusinessWeek and now dean of the graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York. "It can have a chilling effect on editors' judgment and their willingness to do certain stories if they know ... that ads might be pulled because of the story they're doing."
WHERE'S THE OUTRAGE?
"It's a real threat to editorial independence," said Gene Foreman, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a communications professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Yet in what could been seen as an almost tacit acceptance of these kinds of policies and the growing overall influence of marketing dollars the actions of BP and Morgan Stanley merited only a tepid industry response. Upon a request from Advertising Age last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors e-mailed a restatement of its editorial guidelines, urging magazines not to submit "table of contents, text or photos from upcoming issues to advertisers for prior review." An ASME spokesman declined to comment further.
American Business Media, the trade group for the business to business press, also reaffirmed its editorial guidelines last week in a statement where it asked its members to "maintain the highest ethical standards and journalistic integrity."
Eight years ago, the Magazine Publishers of America and ASME drafted guidelines to condemn practices such as the BP policy after Chrysler Corp. tried to employ a similar stance. In 1997, the groups persuaded Chrysler to change its policy.
In the specifics of BP's case, its media agency, WPP Group's MindShare Worldwide, sent a request for proposals to print outlets laying out the terms under which it would place an ad schedule. Titled, "Zero Tolerance Policy," it asked for pre-publication notification of any articles that mention BP, a BP rival, or the oil and energy industry, "regardless of whether editorial is deemed positive or negative."
It reserved the option to pull or hold ads in such cases without penalty. Publishers were also asked to send back in writing whether they agreed to comply with the policy, and to explain what procedures would be put in place "in order to ensure adherence." In 2004, BP spent $21 million in print, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Morgan Stanley, following a rash of bad news this month, asked publishers to notify the company if "objectionable editorial coverage is planned" (AA, May 16).
Newspapers and magazines have long cooperated with marketers' desires not to have ads appear next to controversial coverage or articles about competitors. A standard practice is to reschedule airline ads when a publication contains editorial coverage of a plane crash. Another is moving a General Motors Corp. ad away from a Ford Motor Co. story. But in most cases those are common-sense decisions made by the publications-not the marketers.
Many industry observers said practices like BPs are now being revealed because marketers smell blood in the water, given that the industry faces a crisis of editorial credibility and a threat to commercial revenue as ad dollars shift to the Internet.
Media buyers said the environment in which ads appear are crucial factors in their effectiveness. "If you're worried about being in a magazine whose editorial may not always be complementary to your company, your competitors or your industry, you probably shouldn't be advertising there," said Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print strategy at independent TargetCast TCM.
A BP spokesman said the company was burned about 18 months ago when an ad ran within pages of oil-industry story that was negative.
"There's nothing in that memo that says BP wants to interfere with editorial," said the spokesman, Ronnie Chappell. The policy "is about getting a head's up. It's essentially a courtesy."
contributing: jean halliday