ASME has also long functioned as the industry's journalistic watchdog. Its guidelines demand that publishers and editors follow newsroom policies that "ensure that the clear distinction between advertising and editorial content is never blurred."
However, those lines have been blurred in the wake of the recent advertising downturn in the economy that devastated the magazine-publishing business. Industry insiders say the pressure to quietly accommodate advertisers' demands for product placements and favorable inclusion in editorial content has also risen as a result of new competitive realities, such as competition from Web sites.
Commercial Alert asked ASME to tighten its guidelines to more clearly prohibit product placements in magazine editorial content and demanded that ASME publicly express its concern about the erosion of church/state separation in magazine editorial offices. The letter called editorial guidelines "inadequate to meet the new increased advertiser pressure" and suggested those who violate ASME's guidelines be excluded from participating in the group's National Magazine Awards competition for a period of up to five years.
A spokesman for ASME acknowledged the organization had received the letter. "ASME is in the process of rethinking its guidelines in the light of new advertising realities. We are looking at many suggestions about how to improve them," he said. But he added there is no immediate time line for the revision.
The letter asks ASME to require full public disclosure of product placements and more prominent labeling of "advertorial" or custom-publishing inserts.
"If ever there was a need for resolute action by your organization this is it," reads the sternly worded letter. "If magazines become mere tout sheets for products and the interests of those who sell them, then every story will be suspect."
That the letter was signed by such a large number of journalism professors is an indication of the depth of feeling the issue of product placement has stirred in journalism circles.
"The reason I signed the letter is that our work teaching the principles of journalism in the classroom is difficult when the students see something different happening outside," said Jennifer Moeller, one of the signers, a University of Missouri assistant professor.
Ms. Moeller said students now frequently bring to class examples of product placements they find in magazines. She said her class also includes students who have come back from internships with various magazines and tell stories about the advertiser favoritism they witnessed in the newsrooms where they worked.