Product placement pushes into print

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On the new reality TV show "Three Wishes," host Amy Grant helps small-town folks solve their problems with the help of several familiar brand-name products, whose makers chip in goods or services in order to have them mentioned on the show. On "Meet Mister Mom," dads compete at running households while their wives are away, and the men use only authorized brands: They all clean with one household product, drive the kids in one brand of minivan, and shop at one predetermined department store.

Such commercial arrangements, called product placements, have become ubiquitous since "Survivor" launched the reality TV craze five years ago. Analyzing the fall season, CBS television chairman Les Moonves declared in June, "I think you're going to see a quantum leap in the number of products integrated into your television shows this year."

Now some signs indicate that these practices may be infiltrating a much older medium: magazines and newspapers.

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Revenue from product placements in magazine editorial copy - the stories and photographs - is expected to rise 17.5 percent to $160.9 million this year, and in newspapers by 16.9 percent to $65 million, says a report from PQ Media in Stamford, Conn., released in July.

The study measured all placements of products, whether paid for, exchanged in a barter arrangement, or included without compensation to the publication. It also counted such things as product reviews and photos of products provided by companies without charge.

Product placements, if done in exchange for payment, would violate the operating guidelines of most publications, which usually insist on a clear division between stories or "editorial copy" and advertising as a mark of responsible journalism.

An executive summary of the PQ Media report, titled "Product Placement Spending in Media 2005," did not specify any specific instances where products had been placed in a particular newspaper or magazine in return for payment. It did identify Ford Motor Co. and American Express as among those companies that participate in product placement in magazines.

"Magazines and newspapers are loath to discuss these types of deals publicly," says Patrick Quinn, founder and president of PQ Media. The advertising trade press, he says, has been reporting on other such arrangements.

In August, Mediaweek.com reported that Lexus, Toyota's luxury automobile brand, was in negotiations with unnamed publishers to try to find ways to integrate mentions of its cars into stories. One proposal from Lexus was that staff writers of the publication be employed to write "advertorials" that looked like stories but were really advertising copy. In another proposal, the company would pay to ensure that photos of its cars were included with stories. (Manufacturer-supplied photos are often used by publications, but at the publication's discretion and without payment.)

Product placement has a longer history in movies.

The paid placement of Reese's Pieces candy into the storyline of the children's movie "E.T." is often cited as a prime example. Books and musical recordings have seen their share of paid mentions of products too. Even Broadway plays are getting into the act.

On television, efforts to slip products into programs are a reaction to the growing popularity of digital video recorders, which enable viewers to effortlessly skip commercials.

With advertising and circulation figures flat or worse at many publications, product-placement arrangements might be tempting to the print media, too. Prominent newspapers such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Philadelphia Inquirer have announced staff cuts recently in response to a weak bottom line. But many analysts say product-placement arrangements are less likely to show up in the nation's top newspapers and news magazines than in smaller specialty publications.

Product placement already "is routine in some of the fashion magazines, because they are the quintessential corrupt publications," blurring the line between advertising and editorial content, says Edward Wasserman. He's a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a columnist for the Miami Herald. When advertisers announce, "This is our fall line," he says, these publications "fall in line with the fall line" and hype their products.

Mr. Wasserman is also among those dismayed by the Aug. 22 issue of The New Yorker magazine, sponsored in its entirety by Target department store. Instead of conventional ads, the magazine contained drawings using the company's trademark red-and-white bull's eye logo. Editors didn't explain that the drawings were advertisements or that Target was the sole sponsor of the issue. The magazine's iconic cover, part of its editorial content, featured a drawing festooned with red-and-white beach balls, which seemed to echo the Target logo as well.

While not product placement per se, "What The New Yorker issue offered was the seamless integration of a peddler's promotional imagery into the most prestigious editorial environment US periodical publishing has to offer," Wasserman wrote in an essay in the Miami Herald.

More is on the way. Starting next spring, a new food magazine called Relish is expected to allow advertisers to buy places for their products as ingredients in recipes and in articles that recommend kitchen devices and equipment.

The chatter that Wasserman is hearing in the magazine industry leads him to speculate that the American Magazine Publishers Association may soon loosen its guidelines and endorse some forms of product placement in magazine content. That, at least, might make clearer just what the industry standard is. "Right now it's still kind of a Wild West out there, how this is being done," says PQ Media's Mr. Quinn.

Still, some observers question whether product placement will ever be a viable solution for newspapers or magazines. Publications that "lean on editorial to flog products" are in danger of being seen as "cheery suck ups" by readers, writes Simon Dumenco in the trade publication Advertising Age. If an editorial staff does one "gushy little 'placement,' " he adds, what's to prevent the magazine from being paid by a competing brand the next month, "thus watering down both messages?"

"You need to know what's for sale and what isn't," says John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst and columnist for the American Journalism Review. "Allowing [ads and editorial content] to get blurred, however you do it, is in the long run inimical to a newspaper's reputation - and probably to its business."

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