Wants ASME to Affirm Ban on Commerce/Content Mixing

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NEW YORK ( -- Last week's New York advertising festival has provided a national podium for an anti-advertising group seeking to restrict product placements and related practices in the print media.
ASME's 'Ellie' is the symbol of the National Magazine Awards, which are widely viewed as the Pulitzer Prizes of the consumer magazine field.
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The consumer advocacy organization Commercial Alert and a group of 61 leading journalism and law professors used the opening day of Advertising Week in New York to release a letter to the American Society of Magazine Editors, demanding action to halt the further intrusion of commercial messages into editorial content.

National Magazine Awards
ASME is a professional organization historically grounded in the traditional principles of mainstream American journalism. Each year, in association with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, it sponsors the annual National Magazine Awards, which are the consumer magazine industry's most prestigious editorial honors.

ASME has also long functioned as the industry's journalistic watchdog. Its guidelines demand that publishers and editors follow newsroom policies that "ensure that the clear distinction between advertising and editorial content is never blurred."

New pressures
However, in the wake of the recent downturn in the economy that devastated the magazine publishing business, some advertisers and their media buyers have been seeking to persuade print magazines to open the text of their editorial pages to product placements.

The Ad Age stories detailed how some influential figures such as Hearst Magazines' president, Cathleen Black, have publicly endorsed new views about the so-called separation of church and state in the newsroom. For instance, Ms. Black has said that ASME guidelines are "irrelevant" to the operation of the new genre of shopping magazines, which essentially use product information as their core editorial content.

'Part of the storyline'
Matthew Spahn, director of media planning at Sears, Roebuck & Co., shocked many journalists with his published suggestion that magazine publishers must work "in much less traditional ways" to allow large advertising buyers to "become a part of the storyline" in a magazine's articles.

Magazine industry insiders say the pressure to quietly accommodate advertisers' demands for product placements and favorable inclusion in editorial content has also risen as a result of new competitive realities. Most consumer magazine titles are suffering a continuing circulation and ad sales slump despite the improved economy. Many observers attribute that to a shift in mass media consumption driven by thousands of magazine-like Web sites that offer news, features and information in a more timely, economical and compelling interactive manner than print magazines.

As advertising executives gathered and costumed brand icons paraded

Photo: Hoag Levins
Each year, ASME compiles its award-winning articles in the book 'The Best American Magazine Writing.' Commercial Alert argues that magazines whose editorial content is tainted by advertiser influence should not be allowed to compete for the prestigious journalism honors.
in Manhattan's streets to open Advertising Week Sept. 20, Commercial Alert and the 61 scholars released their letter. Along with asking ASME to tighten its guidelines to more clearly prohibit product placements in magazine editorial content, the letter also demanded that ASME publicly express its concern about the erosion of church/state separation in magazine editorial offices.

Public interest group
Commercial Alert is a Portland, Ore.-based public advocacy organization that was founded in 1998 by Gary Ruskin and Ralph Nader. It filed the complaint that triggered Federal Trade Commission action against deceptive Internet search engine practices. Late last year, it filed a similar complaint with the FTC and Federal Communications Commission charging that TV networks are deceiving the public by failing to disclose product placements. The pending complaint calls for FTC and FCC investigations and the institution of new rules to require TV networks and stations to disclose to their audiences all product placements in their programming.

The latest Commercial Alert letter is critical of ASME's current magazine editorial guidelines as "inadequate to meet the new increased advertiser pressure." It suggests those who violate ASME's guidelines be excluded from participating in the National Magazine Awards competition for a period of up to five years.

A spokesman for ASME acknowledged the organization had received the letter and said: "Basically ASME is in the process of rethinking its guidelines in the light of new advertising realities. We are looking at many suggestions about how to improve them."

The spokesman said there was no immediate time line for updating the editorial guidelines.

Top journalism authorities
The Commercial Alert letter was signed by many of the nation's top journalism authorities, such as Gene Roberts,

Gary Ruskin is the executive director of the nonprofit organizaton Commercial Alert, which is mounting a national lobbying effort against practices that place paid product hype in editorial content.

the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who is a professor at the College of Communication, Pennsylvania State University, and Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC member who is now a law professor at the University of Iowa.

The letter the 61 signed also asks ASME to toughen its guidelines to require full public disclosure of product placements and for more prominent labeling of "advertorial" or custom-publishing inserts whose content is not prepared by newsroom journalists.

"If an author, editor or publication receives money, goods or other consideration from an advertiser mentioned in an article, that fact should be prominently disclosed," reads the letter, "including the amount or fair market value of the goods or payment."

Magazines as mere 'tout sheets'
"If ever there was a need for resolute action by your organization this is it," reads the sternly worded letter, which cites examples from recent press articles about the increasing instances of commerce/content mixing in magazines. "If magazines become mere tout sheets for products and the interests of those who sell them, then every story will be suspect," the two-page letter said.

That the letter was signed by such a large number of journalism professors is an indication of the depth of feeling the issue of product placement has stirred in journalism circles.

One of the signers, Jennifer Moeller, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri's school of journalism, said: "The reason I signed the letter is that our work teaching the principles of journalism in the classroom is difficult when the students see something different happening outside."

Ms. Moeller said students now frequently bring to class examples of product placements they find in magazines. She said her class also includes students who have come back from internships with various magazines and tell stories about the advertiser favoritism they witnessed in the newsrooms where they worked.

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