'NOT ALWAYS COCA-COLA' POLICY THREATENS INTEGRITY OF MAGAZINES

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Memo to Coca-Cola Co. (and, for that matter, any advertiser that has ever placed too severe a restriction on where in a publication its messages can appear): Your ads don't deserve to be in any magazine with editorial integrity. Those are also known as magazines with involved readers, more commonly defined in marketing circles as prime consumer targets.

Instead, you, Coca-Cola, should take your entire magazine budget -- which last year amounted to a paltry $30 million out of total ad spending of $770 million -- and redirect it into custom publishing. Start a magazine called Fizz, fill it with bland, inane articles purporting to reflect the Coca-Cola lifestyle and stick it out on newsstands. Or, better yet, mail it free to every consumer whose name and address you've captured in your database.

The distribution choice doesn't matter because the magazine won't be read. But at least you'll have had complete control over the editorial environment in which your ads appeared.

If the advice seems harsh, consider what Coke did to earn it. As first reported in the New York Post, Coca-Cola has directed McCann-Erickson to keep its ads away from objectionable content. Coke's directive went beyond the usual approach of making sure its ads don't appear adjacent to negative articles about the company or its industry. Instead, it insisted it be steered clear of editorial matter on "inappropriate" topics, including religion, politics and disease.

Call it the Not Always Coca-Cola policy.

Magazines were asked to sign the document in order to get business from Coke, and publishers of several leading titles did -- some without informing their editors.

Wait a minute, the savvy insider says at this point, this is a common practice these days in the magazine industry. Unfortunately, that's true. But few marketers' guidelines cover as broad and vague a field as Coca-Cola's.

Common or not, the practice is antithetical to the basic tenets of effective media advertising. The model is a simple one: Media products develop relationships with audiences based on the value and integrity of their content. That gives the vehicles value for marketers, who place ads in them to tap into the consumer bond.

This is hardly a new concept, yet marketers seem quite willing to risk jeopardizing media integrity -- and, therefore, the audience bond -- with attempts to control editorial environments.

The Not Always Coca-Cola document came to light just days before the Magazine Publishers of America issued the findings of a survey to determine the size of the custom publishing industry.

I've made no secret of the fact I believe custom publishing is the worst thing to happen to the magazine industry in the last decade. Yet publishers are happy to celebrate the rise of what is now a $1 billion segment.

Supporters say custom magazines are an effective relationship- marketing tool. What these publications really are, though, is a serious threat to editorial integrity.

Extreme? Nope. More marketers are issuing strict guidelines about where their ads can appear at the same time they are spending money on custom projects. The implicit threat to magazines: Create a comfortable editorial environment for my marketing message or I'll create it myself.

There no doubt exist custom magazines that serve a purpose, that tap into a consumer passion or deliver useful information. In some cases, marketers have even lent their support to projects that otherwise were not commercially viable. But most custom magazines are essentially useless. There's no consumer demand being filled, no cultural commentary and no edge to the content. The magazines exist solely as soft environments for advertisements.

Marketers must show more faith in editorial products. The magazines that are most effective for advertisers are those that have earned the loyalty and trust of their audiences. They got there without advertiser input on content, and smart marketers will seek only to tap into that relationship, not to destroy it.

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