Pay for play is bad news

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A new survey finds that nearly half of senior marketing executives have paid for editorial coverage in print or on TV news. This is ethically deplorable, unconscionable and unacceptable. It is also shortsighted, bad for media and bad for marketers. Now is the time for marketers to decide whether they are on the right or wrong side of this issue.

The PRWeek/Manning Selvage & Lee survey of 266 CMOs, marketing VPs and marketing directors found that 48.9% of the executives said their companies had paid for editorial or broadcast placement. And nearly half of those who indicated their companies had never paid said they'd consider doing so in the future.

Pay for play rarely is as egregious as when the Department of Education and Ketchum Communications paid commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act. But it's not subtle; Mark Hass, CEO of PR firm MS&L, says advertisers often push for a "quid pro quo"-seeking editorial coverage, say, when they buy space in a lifestyle magazine.

What's the harm? It's called damaged credibility. Mr. Hass notes his Publicis Groupe sibling, Starcom MediaVest, last October did a study that found two-thirds of consumers thought editorial mentions of a product had been paid for.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Shame on media for caving in. Shame on marketing executives who fail to see how trusted, independent editorial creates the environment crucial for effective advertising.

Public relations also is at fault. Mr. Hass says his profession hasn't done a good job educating marketing colleagues about the imperative for separation of advertising and editorial. And if this same survey were done among PR executives, he says, "the results would be alarming as well," for ethically deviant PR hacks see no problem in pay for play.

It's time for marketing leaders to recognize the damaging effects of paid media coverage and to take a stand against this corrupt practice. Ethics line up with smart and effective advertising: Steer your ad dollars to media that you-and consumers-trust, and your message will be heard.
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