Updated ASME Guidelines Trigger New Discussion and Debate

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NEW YORK -- Nearly as soon as the magazine editors’ association laid down its new guidelines reaffirming the importance of keeping advertising and editorial content distinctly separate, the debate over product placements in print media flared anew.
The nation's foremost professional organization of magazine editors has issued new guidelines that uphold the group's traditional prohibition against product placement.

Media experimentation

For one thing, every other media has at least experimented with integrated advertising. Leaving the obvious -- TV and movies -- aside, radio talk show hosts like Howard Stern regularly extol advertisers without mentioning that they are delivering extended commercials. Carole Matthews took money from the Ford Motor Co. to include the Ford Fiesta in her novel The Sweetest Taboo, published last year. And last December, a Vancouver, B.C., marketing company called Marqui began paying bloggers $800 each month when they mentioned the company at least once.

No media segment has fought the concept of brand integration as vigorously as magazines and newspapers have. Both condemn the practice as a violation of the core tenets of mainstream American journalism. In guidelines that have been revised and reiterated for more than 20 years, the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) details the rules for keeping advertising distinctly separate from editorial content. Magazines that violate the guidelines are barred from eligibility in that year's highly-coveted National Magazine Awards -- the highest journalistic prize of the magazine business -- and otherwise scorned by their journalistic colleagues.

Rising pressure from marketers

But some individual editors as well as some publishers have softened and quietly explored ways that marketers' money can be taken in return for mentioning their products in the text of articles or including the products in photographs taken to illustrate articles. This topic has become a hot one as some marketers -- including General Motors Corp. -- have publicly called for a loosening of the church-state wall so that they can shift more of their advertising budgets into the coffers of accommodating print publications.

Under pressure from both publishers eyeing potential new streams of revenue in an era of declining magazine circulation and journalists determined to hold the line against such commercial intrusion into the editorial process, ASME has been reviewing and debating its guidelines in secret for several years.

The group finally released the much-awaited update of the document this month at the American Magazine Conference in Puerto Rico, ruling again that there should be "no advertiser influence or pressure on editorial independence" and that advertisers should not be allowed to "pay to place their products in editorial pages nor should they demand placement in return for advertising."

'Inside TV' ignores ASME guidelines

Inside TV has ignored ASME’s prohibitions since its debut this year, and its editor in chief, Steve LeGrice, soon reiterated his opinion that the guidelines simply do no apply to his title. “Our research shows that our readers view product integration as a natural and seamless value-added experience,” he said. “While integrated advertising may not be the right vehicle for all magazines, for Inside TV, it is just one element of delivering a compelling product to our readers.”

In an Oct. 23 Los Angles Times op-ed, Michael Levine, the founder of Levine Communications Office in L.A., argued that ASME must have a "considerably lower opinion of magazine readers (and, for that matter, magazine editors) than one might expect.”

He cited the Aug. 22 issue of The New Yorker, which contained ads from only one marketer, Target Stores, and which put the magazine in violation of ASME guidelines requiring publishers’ notes in the case of single-sponsor issues. ASME somewhat reluctantly reprimanded The New Yorker last month.

“If readers of the erudite New Yorker can’t be counted on to recognize advertising when they see it,” Mr. Levine wrote, “what hope is there for readers of Us Weekly, the National Enquirer or –- Lord help us! –- Teen People?”

But Mr. Levine’s argument may actually support the argument for magazine guidelines. What about, Lord help us, Lucky magazine?

'New Yorker' and the Target issue

The New Yorker was slapped on the wrist partly because all magazines are supposed to play by the same rules, not because its readers actually confused the Aug. 22 issue’s articles and essays with the red-and-black ads festooned with Target logos.

At Teen People, which includes tips on cool accoutrements for girls to buy, the distinctions might not be so obvious. And the conversation rarely even ventures into the world of fashion magazines, which often must include regular advertisers in their editorial photo shoots or risk losing the business.

Consumers expect product placement in TV and movies. Listeners can probably tell when Mr. Stern is shilling for a paying customer instead of talking over current events, audibly ogling models and complaining about his soon-to-be-former employer, Infinity Broadcasting. Ford talked openly about its paid entry into literature. And Marqui required its paid bloggers to display a logo explaining the relationship.

So for ASME to require labels like “advertisement” or “promotion” atop paid content that could resemble editorial seems fairly par-for-the-course. This is not a day when consumers want to be fooled. They want to know, or believe they know, what they are watching, buying and reading.

That heightened sense of reader sensitivity was perhaps best summed up in a now-famous comment by Erwin Ephron, partner in the Ephron, Papazian & Ephron ad agency, who said: "If readers can recognize product placement, that's bad, but if they can't spot it, that's even worse."
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