'TV Guide' spinoff sells marketers branded content

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In the most audacious attempt by a major consumer magazine to play in the world of product integration and branded entertainment, TV Guide Publishing Group's upcoming launch Inside TV will allow marketers to pay to integrate brands into its editorial content.

The celebrity-soaked women's weekly is offering packages that vault ad messages over the traditional wall separating advertising and edit. In the most vivid example, a marketer buying into a package for the weekly's "Style" section can place one of its brands into Inside TV's recommended slate of beauty products selected to help readers mimic stars' looks.

"There have been numbers of advertisers requesting-and throwing down a gauntlet-and saying magazines need to step up and get involved in this arena of product integration," said Scott Crystal, exec VP of TV Guide Publishing Group.

How to do that, however, has been a hot topic of debate among magazine executives.

"Our rule of thumb is it should be absolutely explicit and apparent" that such product placements are taking place, said John Loughlin, president of TV Guide Publishing Group. "Consumers are smart enough to make their own judgment about effectiveness and appropriateness."

Another Inside TV opportunity, intended for a broadcast or cable channels, will embed ads in an "island" unit surrounded by recommendations for viewing that splay across a two-page spread. Elsewhere, milder integrations-like one allowing a marketer to brand a weekly reader poll on its cover story and slots that call out exclusive marketer promotions for Inside TV readers-will also be offered.

Still, the last two run afoul of current editorial guidelines laid out by the American Society of Magazine Editors, the de facto arbiter in maintaining lines between ads and editorial.

Embedding marketing messages into the fluffy confines of a celebrity magazine is hardly equivalent to product placements jumping out of, say, news accounts of unrest in the Middle East. But it raises hackles nonetheless.

"Product placement as a strategy, in magazines or anywhere else, is beyond stupid," said Tom Ryder, chairman-CEO of Reader's Digest Association and chairman of Magazine Publishers of America, who stressed he was not familiar with Inside TV's specific executions.

Marketers don't necessarily agree. "The opportunity to embed relevant product within relevant environments in an interesting and compelling way for the reader is a win-win," said Matthew Spahn, director of media planning, Sears, Roebuck & Co.

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TV Guide will distribute around 1 million copies of Inside TV's debut April 24 issue to newsstands. A one-time, full-color ad page is $30,000. The packages themselves will last throughout `05 and not come cheap, involving a buy-in of at least 40 ad pages this year and maintenance of existing spending levels in flagship title TV Guide. Marketers buying one of the integrated packages Inside TV offers are guaranteed category exclusives-only one wireless provider will be able to buy a package, although there would be no ban on another wireless provider buying straight ad pages.

Such product shout-outs in the editorial content of celebrity magazines are coin of the realms in Britain, from where Inside TV Editor Steve LeGrice hails. Mr. LeGrice pointed out that he emigrated to work in the U.S. long before such practices took off in the U.K., but he did express comfort with Inside TV's approach. "It's the way of the future," he said. "From the consumer's point of view, I don't think there is any issue. In fact, it adds to the experience of the magazine."

This view is far from unanimous among editors. "One thing we have to be mindful of as a medium-editors and publishers-is, do we want to jeopardize consumer receptivity to our advertising?" asked Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's editor in chief and the current head of ASME. "Do we want to push it so far that they start getting turned off?"

Told of some executives' reaction, Mr. Loughlin shot back: "All we are doing is essentially making it clear what the quid pro quo is. In many categories, there are winks and nods." (Indeed, most of Inside TV's integrations will be emblazoned with marketers' logos.) "This gives us the opportunity to be more honest, not less."

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