Too sexy? P&G 'task force' stirs magazine debate

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The marketing department at Procter & Gamble Co. has formed what some are terming a "sex task force" to examine the package-goods giant's policy toward sexually explicit magazine articles and cover lines.

Leading the initiative is Global Marketing Officer Robert L. Wehling. Media executive Dave Cowan is also involved in the discussions.

"What we're doing is part of an ongoing dialogue with all different types of media . . . in order to encourage a positive environment in which to advertise our brands," a P&G spokeswoman said.


She said monitoring media content is not unusual for P&G. "We review the content of magazines as we review the content of television shows we advertise in. It's nothing new. . . . It probably has been blown out of proportion."

Publishers--nervous about pressure to soften content to please advertisers--said they hear rumblings from P&G brand managers and from media agency Starcom USA about a divide within the marketer. Some brand managers believe the company should take a stand, while others see the issue as irrelevant to sales. Starcom declined comment.

"There's always room for discussion, and [policy] is going to change over time," the P&G spokeswoman said. "We first established media content guidelines 50 years ago, and those have obviously changed and evolved over time.

"It's a very gray area, and of course there are going to be different points of view. We have to come to a collective point of view for the majority of our brands."

Marketing directors and brand managers at P&G do broad media planning, including identifying target consumers and the best media with which to reach them. They do not have control over the specific magazine titles or TV programming in which their brands advertise. Those decisions rest with P&G's media executives and its media AORs--Starcom for print and TeleVest for TV.


P&G placed approximately 75% of the money it spent in magazines last year in women's fashion and beauty titles, especially for its Cover Girl, Oil of Olay and Pantene brands, which have notably shifted focus from TV to magazines.

P&G's magazine spending was up 15.8% to $454 million in the 12 months ended Nov. 30, according to Competitive Media Reporting. It was the second-straight year of double-digit growth in magazine spending for the company, even as its overall ad spending rose in the low single digits in 1998 and fell 4.3% in the most recent period.

The P&G internal discussion follows the recent high-profile episode in which supermarket chain Kroger Co. decided to install blinders on its newsstand racks to cover up Hearst Magazines' Cosmopolitan.

Women's and men's magazines have run more risque, attention-getting covers over the past year. Even staid Conde Nast title GQ pictured a nearly nude shot of supermodel Tyra Banks, whose breasts were covered only by her long tresses, with the missive, "Tyra, please pull back your hair!"


Magazine executives, who asked to remain anonymous, said the situation is consistent with what's happening on TV, where programs such as HBO's "Sex in the City" and Fox's "Ally McBeal" have set new standards of acceptability for frank sexual talk.

"If you want to reach twentysomething women, this is the world they're living in. We aren't hearing complaints from the readership of the magazines or the viewers of these shows," a magazine executive said. "Advertisers have to be realistic about what appeals to this demographic."

In TV, P&G traditionally has steered clear of programs with controversial sexual content, such as NBC's "NYPD Blue."

Under a partnership with Paramount Television Group in the mid-1990s, P&G was the primary sponsor for many syndicated programs, such as "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." But the company pulled its ads from certain episodes, including one featuring a lesbian relationship.

Last year, P&G joined other advertisers, such as Johnson & Johnson, in launching Family Programming Awards to recognize "family friendly" programming.

Copyright April 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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