Blurring the ad-editorial line

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Web publishers dealing with issues of integrity more familiar to print

By Jeffery D. Zbar

Where does advertising end and editorial content begin?

As marketers put more content on the Internet, traditional editorial entities are wondering about their place in the future paradigm.

Last month, BayBank, Boston, launched a site for The Head of the Charles, an annual rowing regatta. The idea paralleled a plan envisioned for The Boston Globe's new Web site. The Globe killed its plan.

"With the networks crying about a 500-channel universe, I dream for the days when I'm only going to have 500 competitors," said Bill Bass, development director, Boston Globe Electronic Publishing.

On the Web, anyone can be a publisher. Marketers are developing their own content, publishers are providing editorial to marketers and both are vying for the same consumer eyeballs.

Conde Nast Traveler is said to have offered to create a business-travel section of its site for Delta Air Lines. Hearst's HomeArts is developing content for its advertisers as well.

On the marketer side, Nissan Motor Cars USA's site for its Pathfinder sport utility line contains content related to the outdoors. Toyota Motor Sales USA's new site is scarcely about Toyota, featuring lifestyle interests like gardening, travel and sports. And New Balance Athletic Shoes is even asking magazines it advertises in to provide content for its Web site.

"Long term, this is going to get messy," said Mr. Bass, "with editorial saying [to computer users], `You're leaving our editorial world and going into the commercial world that we have no control over.' "

Control is exactly what Toyota was seeking, said James Pisz, national director of response marketing for the auto marketer.

"If you're not experiencing, understanding, controlling [content], you're not going to be in a position to gain from it in the future," Mr. Pisz said.

New Balance's site, which has tips on exercise, diet and running and information on New Balance events, also includes content provided by Runner's World, Men's Health and Women's Sport and Fitness.

Runner's World will provide its race calendar. "They're not paying for it. It's part of value-added for their [print] ad package in 1995," said George Hirsch, group publisher of the Cahners Publishing Co. magazine.

Mr. Hirsch said he didn't consider supplying content to an advertiser site a problem.

"It's something I give a lot of thought to, because there are more gray areas than ever before," he said.

But he acknowledges not all editorial can be sponsored.

"Our shoe ratings, where Runner's World makes judgments about shoe manufacturers twice a year--there is no way we could let that become sponsored on a Web site."

Some media companies believe providing content for an advertiser's Web site is no different than creating an advertorial for a marketer, as long as it's labeled as such.

The recipe database in Hearst's HomeArts Web site contains recipes from Hearst magazines as well as advertisers. The advertiser-sponsored recipes are labeled as such, but they exist side-by-side with the editorial-created recipes.

Playboy, meanwhile, created an area within its Web site specifically for Domecq Importers' Sauza Conmemorativo tequila.

"The client didn't have the resources to set up a site," said Lisa Natale, Playboy's corporate director of market research. "Their thinking was, `Why should we create a site and not get the traffic that Playboy would get?' "

Playboy and Domecq will open a "Sauza Advisor" feature by yearend, patterned after the Playboy Advisor advice column. A Playboy editor will work with the magazine's marketing department to develop the column, a potentially controversial move given the usual separation of advertising and editorial in the print world.

Playboy executives see no conflict with the arrangement. In fact, they believe that though the future of interactive marketing is still unfolding, they may be among the first to tackle such an issue.

Ultimately, the concerns might be moot; just like with advertorials in print, it's often the ad and editorial executives who question the relationship, not the consumer.

"Everybody's feeling their way. It's different than print. It's a new horizon," said Playboy Publisher Richard Kinsler.

As long as the site makes clear it is not editorial subject matter, providers will make no enemies, said Nate Zelnick, senior analyst with Jupiter Communications, New York.

"Keeping that separation between advertising and editorial is key to keeping your integrity," he said. "And having the information have integrity is what gets people to come back to your site. Bending content that in any way deceives the consumer kills you in the end."

The burden is on advertisers not to be salesmen but entertainment and information providers and incorporate messages in a more "editoriallike context," said John Nardone, director of consumer services at Modem Media, Westport, Conn., which represents Delta Air Lines, among other clients.

"By its nature, it becomes very much like editorial," he said. "Otherwise, who's going to choose to look at it?"

Jeff Jensen and Keith J. Kelly contributed to this story.

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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