Commentary by Randall Rothenberg

SELLING CLOTHES WITH AN INFOTAINMENT MAGAZINE

Benetton and the Bending Boundaries of Publishing

By Published on .

Can advertising ever really be entertainment? Can it provide truly objective news? Are marketing communications inherently inimical to the values of independent communications?

These are only a few of the provocative questions raised by the hiring of Kurt Andersen, the gifted former editor of New York Magazine and founder of Inside.com, as chairman and editorial director of Colors, the Benetton publication. And they are worth asking now, because sponsored infotainment, of various formats, is being proposed as a solution -- perhaps the solution -- for marketers confronted by audience fragmentation and the increasing ineffectiveness of traditional marketing formats.

A change of mind
My answers, admittedly self-interested, are yes, yes and absolutely not -- responses markedly different than those I had in the '80s, when as a journalist, I raised the issues in covering the launch of Colors. I thought then the glossy magazine -- the creation of design entrepreneur Tibor Kalman, photographer and Benetton marketing executive Oliviero Toscani, and editor Karrie Jacobs -- was a cynical effort at attention-getting by Benetton.

Perhaps it was. But the publication, and Benetton's advertising generally, attracted more notice for the provocative political views of its creators, on subjects such as race, religion, gender, globalization, and design as a tool for social change, than to the company's fashion products. Critics, caught up in a philosophical debate about purity of motive, failed to see that audiences were applying their own filters and absorbing the ideas on their merits. Indeed, in retrospect it's clear that Benetton's marketing was far more effective politically than economically. As news coverage across the world amplified the works' political content, franchisees in numerous markets voiced discontent, some abandoned the company, and sales in a few markets fell.

Bad marketing, or taboo-busting communications form? Cynical, or courageous? Maybe it was both at once. Indeed, it's important to recall that when Whittle Communications, another company hailed as a pioneer and derided as a corrupter of the common good, published a series of sponsored books, it, too, was excoriated for crossing some invisible line between fair and iniquitous communications. Forgotten today is that several of the books commissioned by Whittle were picked up by mainstream publishers and became best-sellers.

A boundary-bending editor
Mr. Andersen is superbly placed to advance the goals of Colors' founders -- and to change peoples' thinking about where the line between marketing and infotainment should be drawn (if anywhere). He is a boundary-bender himself, and not a little brave. A superior talent, he tends not to care whether the chatterers approve or disdain a venture of his, because he knows that each career turn (critic, magazine founder, editor in chief, Web executive, novelist, radio host) has provided challenges, and new knowledge. I envy him, because he never stops reinventing himself, and never takes an easy path.

Becoming legitimate
His challenge now is to find a way for a sponsored-communications venture to achieve not just the notoriety but the full legitimacy of (allegedly) autonomous infotainment. Certainly, marketers require new models beyond the conventional advertising formats to communicate their messages. The trick for those engaged in reinventing the form is not to find the uncrossable line, but the virtuous blend, the mixture of the sponsor's and the external audience's interests, needs and knowledge.

And that's exactly the kind of thing a marketing-savvy content visionary -- in other words, a good editor -- like Andersen can do.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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