Line between editorial, sales still needs vigorous defense

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Dear [Editor]," the email began.

"We have an interesting proposition for you, which can actually help as a `goodwill gesture' toward your magazine, and could bring considerable advertising revenues as well-a clear win-win situation for you."

This opening was followed by a load of claptrap about the author's company, and how wonderful it was. Then the kicker: "Here is our sincere proposal: Write an editorial about our [obviously amazing product]. Depending on the success of the editorial, we will be ready and willing to purchase advertising catering to the industry and trade your publication supports. We do hope you will take advantage of this excellent opportunity for you and your readers. Please kindly let us hear from you with a favorable response."

Here's a response: Wait, never mind; my response can't be printed in this family magazine.

The woman who received the email, the editor of a business magazine owned by a sizable publishing house, had an equally visceral reaction but somehow found the grace to reply to its odious author in language filtered of expletives. (I agreed, reluctantly, to withhold the offender's name from this column; the chap and his company deserve any derision that would have come their way.)

While the letter's unethical attempt to trade favorable editorial coverage for advertising dollars was clumsy and blatant, the theme was depressingly familiar. Most approaches are smoother and more subtle, but no less dangerous (and maybe more so; it's hard to fight an elusive target.)

Under the guise of breaking through clutter and seeking "creative solutions" from media sellers, some desperate marketers are in reality trying to infiltrate editorial products in a way that erodes their bonds with audiences. The strategy is ultimately self-defeating-it destroys the very attributes, trust and integrity, that make media brands valuable to begin with.

I am a realistic and close observer of the advertising business, and understand the pressures marketers and media sellers face in their bid to attract and retain consumers' attention. But I'm also a content creator whose primary role is to protect my brand's most important asset: its relationship with readers. Smart editors get this. Their defense of editorial integrity isn't some knee-jerk reaction against advertising. It's good business.

I earn my pay at a company that values editorial ethics above all else. But for many others in consumer and business media, pressure to shape content to suit advertisers' needs is a day-to-day dilemma. The editor who received the email that leads this column shared it with an editorial committee I chair for American Business Media, a trade association. Many of the other editors on the committee who read the full exchange (including the advertiser's disingenuous response to the editor's reply: "We would never try to influence blah blah blah. ... ") wrote to say that they, too, often confront similar pressures from advertisers, and even, unfortunately, from their own management.

ABM's editorial committee is reviewing its editorial code of ethics to give editors the strongest possible tool for dealing with pressures to sacrifice integrity. Sales executives can also use such codes to explain to advertisers where the line is, and help them understand that programs that cross it don't benefit anyone in the long term. Marketers should keep pushing for ideas that drive their businesses, but not at the cost of driving consumers away or driving media sellers out of business.

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