Edit lapses up as ad pages decline

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As TV and movies embrace a Madison + Vine ethos of blending entertainment with marketers' products and messages, magazine editors and publishers find themselves trying to pull off a tricky balancing act of maintaining the church/state wall between editorial and advertising.

"There's more confusion than ever," said Mark Whitaker, editor of Washington Post Co.'s Newsweek and VP of the American Society of Magazine Editors.

This year, ASME-which has long held a firm line on what is and is not acceptable through its guidelines governing the separation of advertising and editorial-has been busier fielding complaints from its members about ad/edit concerns.

"ASME has received more concerns from our editorial membership about their or other magazines [over] what they think are violations," said Susan Ungaro, ASME president and editor in chief of Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's Family Circle.

Publishers' struggles to satisfy advertiser demands for new and bolder packages combined with increased business pressures on a medium that's remained unusually mired in a recession have resulted in widening the cracks in the wall between advertising and editorial.

Adding to the pressure is the view of certain advertisers that some of ASME's concerns are little more than a nuisance. "They need to get off their high horse," said John Frierson, managing partner at Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee, New York. "People are very marketing-savvy right now."

ASME this year sent warning letters out to Wenner Media's Rolling Stone and Rodale's Prevention. ASME guidelines state the a title's layout and design of edit pages should be distinctly different from ad pages, and any ad pages that contain editorial elements of typeface or design should be clearly labeled as advertising. A magazine's logo, name and editorial staff should also not be used in a way to imply any endorsement of an advertised product.

Angelina Jolie

In Rolling Stone's case, its Aug. 7 cover of Angelina Jolie came with a gatefold that contained an additional editorial shot of the bee-stung-lipped Ms. Jolie-but, when fully opened, displayed a three-page ad featuring Ms. Jolie as the Lara Croft character from "Tomb Raider" shilling for Jeep. In Prevention's March issue, an editorial supplement about caregiving included in a "tips" box a mention of Pfizer's Alzheimer's medication Aricept, which was the sole advertiser of that section.

Top executives at Prevention and Rolling Stone acknowledged receiving ASME's warnings and expressed remorse, but addressed the demands marketers have in the current media climate.

"This was totally a church-and-state mishap," said Prevention's Group Publisher Denise Favorule, who said she'd not seen the editorial before placing the ad. She also said advertisers are "looking for new ideas, and new, impactful ways to get messages out."

The ASME slap "is something we take deadly seriously," said Rolling Stone Publisher Rob Gregory. "Our goal is not to tiptoe along the edge of what is acceptable standards of church and state." But he added, "marketers expect more from magazines in general now. And magazines have to give them more."

Of course, this terrain is complex. Many women's magazines, as Ms. Favorule points out, have long winked at key advertisers with "credits" for their wares in photo layouts. Ad Age's Magazine of the Year, Conde Nast Publications' Lucky, has been closely watched by ASME-and helped inspire an ASME guideline prohibiting placing brand-names on covers. It also elicited ASME concerns by allowing advertising on its "stickers" page that features shrunk-down versions of editorial layouts. Editor in Chief Kim France tartly told Ad Age she knows "not to expect a General Excellence award from ASME."

The warnings themselves do not bring about penalties. Repeat violations, though, can force an editor's expulsion from ASME, or make a title ineligible for a National Magazine Award nomination. The last time this threat was carried out was in 1998, when Time4 Media's This Old House had a nomination revoked after publishing an editorial poster bearing the logo of Ace Hardware.

staying clear

"We have no problem with new ways of marketing, as long as it remains clear what is and what isn't," said Marlene Kahan, executive director, ASME. But "it's still important, regardless of the climate, to ensure a clear distinction."

One former ASME president-and ad/edit hardliner-said Lucky's open shopping focus inoculates it from some of the concerns raised. "They're not out to fool anyone," said Jackie Leo, editor in chief of Reader's Digest. What she most objects to is any ad/edit collaboration that will look fishy to a reader. In the past she's vetoed barbecue sauce ad adjacencies to articles on grilling: "It gets too close for comfort."

Rolling Stone's Mr. Gregory, however, believes his magazine's readers are savvy enough to discern some of this for themselves. "They've grown up with product placement, and grown up with rap songs about Courvoisier. ... They can tell the difference between advertising and editorial."

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