Flip a page, and there's an article about a hot New York eatery; a photo shows a Lexus SC 430 parked in front.
Coincidence? No way. This hypothetical magazine is chock-full of product placements for Toyota Motor Corp. Its luxury division is asking several national magazines to use Lexus vehicles to illustrate stories in "groundbreaking" ways, said Deborah Wahl Meyer, Lexus division's VP-marketing.
The practice is common in movies and TV shows. But critics say the expansion of product placement into print is a slippery slope that could turn print journalism into just another shill game.
Ms. Wahl Meyer won't say which publications might sign such deals. "In TV, product placement has really stepped up," she said. "That's paid for and accepted by the public. It has become pretty widespread. There's a lot of opportunity to do that in the print world, too."
Auto enthusiast magazines routinely borrow vehicles from automakers to illustrate articles. There is nothing subliminal about such practices, since the vehicles themselves are the subject of the articles. Newspapers and consumer magazines also borrow vehicles to do car reviews.
But the Lexus marketing gambit, first outlined in a June 27 article in Business Week, suggests that automakers might lobby magazines aggressively to use vehicles to illustrate articles that aren't about cars. If a magazine does a story about fashion and needs a car that fits into the background of the fashion shoot, for example, Lexus would want to supply that car.
A key question is whether Lexus or any other auto brand would withhold advertising dollars unless a magazine agrees to use its products. Lexus said it wouldn't happen.
General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group have said they aren't pursuing print product placement. But if a magazine comes looking for help, they're happy to oblige. "If a magazine came to us and said, `We want a Mustang,' we would work with them to make that happen," Ford spokesman Dave Reuter said. "But it's not part of our media buy. It's always initiated by the publication and not by us."
Lexus spokesman Bill Ussery said the company would not pay for product placement or make advertising conditional upon product placement. "I don't think you can pay any magazine or any editor to place your product in there," he said.
Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., is troubled by the Lexus initiative. He said other advertisers already buy their way into editorial space. Beauty and fashion magazines are likely candidates for such product placement, he said, but it's something that few in the magazine world want to talk about.
A spokeswoman for Time magazine said that it does not accept product placement. A spokesman for Conde Nast Publications, which publishes numerous high-profile fashion, travel and lifestyle magazines, declined to comment.
Ms. Wahl Meyer insisted she's not pushing product placement on anyone. She said the response from publications to her idea has been "fantastic." Magazine editors are coming to Lexus with ideas, she said. She would not identify the publications.
"I'm not talking about pushing anyone to do this," she said. "We highly respect what a journalist and editor do. We're not talking about crossing any boundaries that are well established."
Jamie LaReau is a staff reporter at Automotive News
Pay for play
A key question is whether Lexus or other brands would withhold ad dollars unless a mag agrees to use its product