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Product placement pushes into print

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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.

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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."