Commentary by Rance Crain


Publishers Promote Magazines as Less Vulnerable to Morality Controversies

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If religious fundamentalists who helped re-elect President Bush step up their demands for greater restraint in TV programming, advertisers already feeling the heat could steer their money into the relatively safe harbor of magazines.

And magazines, after a couple of rocky years, seemed to sense TV's vulnerability even before the election. At the Magazine Publishers of America annual meeting in Florida last month, publishers were almost giddy about their prospects. "Print is on the cusp of an explosion," as one agency media buyer put it.

No more shampoo orgasms
Up until now, let's face it, marketers talked the talk about cutting back on TV spending, but relatively few walked the walk. But now both TV advertising and programming might be too visible for comfort. Is that one reason Procter & Gamble stopped having orgasms over the air for Herbal Essences shampoo? And why both Lowe's and Tyson Foods pulled their commercials from TV's hottest new show, Desperate Housewives?

The religious fundamentalists showed their strength at the ballot box, and that performance will embolden them to demand ads and TV shows more in tune with their beliefs.

My old boss, Stan Cohen, our longtime Washington editor, is very concerned about the clout that religious groups had in the election. He believes it is dangerous that they used "government power to impose their vision of 'morality' on others." My view is that political parties and marketers alike must deal with the views of voters and consumers residing in the red states of the Midwest and South. They are not bashful about trading their votes for political action that's important to them.

Understanding red states' concerns
Stan sees this as a clash of church and state, but the religious fundamentalists -- and other like-minded people -- more likely see it as an affirmation of their right to register what they believe. President Bush, whether you like him or hate him, has tapped into a deep-rooted feeling among these people that he understands their concerns.

And that's what politics -- and come to think of it, marketing -- is all about. At their conference, magazine people were throwing around the concept that their medium "engages" consumers more directly than other media.

In the current climate of heightened morality, it's a good thing when your ads blend into the environment and don't stand out like a sore thumb. And because magazines are bought by readers and don't appear indiscriminately in everybody's mailboxes, conservative critics can't and don't say that they are an intrusion.

Wrong direction
The magazine people are mounting an ad campaign to extol the advantages of their medium. Describing magazines as the medium that engages readers is a powerful position, but that doesn't appear where the ads are headed. Attendees at the MPA confab saw layouts of people 100 years from now (which is supposed to show that magazines will still be around then) reading magazines in futuristic settings. The tagline is "Read on."

They can do better than that. "Read on" is no unique selling proposition, but they have one right before their eyes. They've created a place where editorial makes advertising work better because both combine to involve and engage the reader. A magical place where -- can it be? -- ads are not an intrusion.

In other words a little bit of heaven right here on earth, a proposition even the religious fundamentalists might embrace.

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