In the latest sign of how far publishers are willing to go to sell pages and how far marketers are willing to push to stand out in a cluttered environment, Elle literally split the cover of its March issue down the middle to hide an ad for Arden's Sunflowers fragrance beneath the flaps.
The unusual gatefold ad has drawn fire from editors, who say it threatens the magazine's editorial integrity. The ad has also caused a stir in agency circles, though it's unclear whether media buyers are bothered by the ad or simply annoyed because they didn't come up with the idea first.
The controversy isn't likely to die down when the issue leaves newsstands in late March. Hachette last week said the Arden ad is part of a global media buy and will run under split covers in many of the 23 international editions of Elle throughout the second quarter.
And the U.S. Elle is likely to run similar ads later this year.
"Arden came to us to execute this worldwide using the Ellenetwork," said Paul DuCharme,Hachette senior VP-global advertising. "It's unique, it's intrusive and Arden is looking for breakthrough, innovative ideas."
Mr. DuCharme said there have been "a few detractors," but "Most of the clients I've approached are interested."
Editors are another question.
"It's an outrage that a magazine would do this to its cover-they destroyed a major editorial feature in order to favor one advertiser," said Steven Shepard, editor in chief of Business Week and president of the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Mr. Shepard said the ad does not violate ASME guidelines designed to make sure there is a clear distinction between editorial and advertising material. But he does believe readers and advertisers alike should react negatively.
"I think the market ought to discipline Elle," Mr. Shepard said.
James Truman, newly named editorial director at Conde Nast Publications, said he has seen split cover ads before in European magazines but wouldn't allow one in a Conde Nast title.
"It makes the cover look less like it belongs to the magazine and more like it belongs to the advertiser, and that's a shame," Mr. Truman said.
In recent years, advertisers have increasingly pushed the boundaries of good taste in their quest to stand out in crowded magazine issues, with gimmicks ranging from pop-up ads to ones that talk and sing.
Amy Gross, editorial director at Elle, said she had no say in the decision to run the cover gatefold ad but wasn't offended by it.
"It didn't compromise the cover," she said.
Arden Media Director Barbara Bank defended the ad as being "novel and innovative," but admitted that other magazines-which she declined to name-declined to accept it.
"Elle was the one magazine we felt embraced the concept as we did," she said.
To keep the cover from tearing, Elle's March issue was wrapped in a clear plastic bag. The wrap also kept readers from seeing the split cover until after they bought the magazine.
Elle Publisher Diane Silberstein said reaction from the ad community has been positive.
"Most phone calls have been, `Why didn't we do it first?' It's a very creative new twist on doing a gatefold," she said.
Not every agency media buyer agreed.
"My reaction to the cover is, I am convinced this is something that they're doing for their advertiser rather than their readers," said Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print media at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. "What's in it for the reader?"