Lines blur between ads and articles
The luxury truck seems to lurch from the page of Ski magazine. It's a "surefooted Rover," explains the copy below it. The next few pages elaborate - with seven more invocations of the brand, seven Land Rover photos, and chunks of text that could be called paeans to a product.
"Well-crafted lines lend a rugged but cosmopolitan look," reads one line. Paragraphs tout the truck's technical specifications in arcane detail.
Why so much hyping of this one particular mode of conveyance in a feature story on Colorado travel?
Well, it could be that the freelancer who wrote this piece - and who also reviews cars for Ski - thought the Land Rover was an important part of his travel experience. (Efforts to reach the writer for comment were unsuccessful.) Or it could also be the latest case study in what some observers of the industry call a troubling trend: the peppering of magazine articles with product brand names.
"It's across the culture," says Peter Hart, media analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in New York. "You're seeing these tendencies everywhere, whether it's product placement on a sitcom or in the news."
During the ad-sales slump of the early 1990s, a few consumer magazines faced lawsuits - and editors were fired - amid allegations that they blurred the line between editorial content and advertising.
In 1999, Times-Mirror Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times, cut a deal with the owners of the Staples Center to share ad revenue generated by a Times Sunday magazine that dedicated one issue to the arena.
"That was scandalous at the time," says Mr. Hart. "If it happened now, I don't know. I think the bar has been lowered."
Tolerance for mentioning specific products in a publication's articles has risen significantly in this fourth year of another ad slump, experts say, with product placement today spilling out of the entertainment realm and deeper into zones of supposed objectivity.
"They're failing to inform their readers, their viewers, about how these relationships really work," says Hart, who hadn't seen the June/July issue of Ski.
Any "implied endorsement" flouts the guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors, says Marlene Kahan, ASME's executive director. Though many editors work to hold the line, she and others say, marketers are turning up the pressure on publishers to get "added value."
"The more they can make advertising look like journalism, the better suited they are to sell their products," says Hart. "Those boundaries have steadily been getting fuzzier," he adds. "It's not clear anymore, which is exactly what advertisers want."
Readers, for their part, may be increasingly accustomed to publications in which the stories - and not just the ads - are meant to sell an image. Custom publishing - the production of periodicals with close ties to the firms that commission them - has come on strong in recent years.
Nearly 116,000 such publications now exist, says Lori Rosen, executive director of the Custom Publishing Council. That's up 20 percent from four years ago. Most are up-front about their sponsors, she says, though there are no industry rules on disclosure.
"Bloomingdale's came out with a new magazine last year," Ms. Rosen says. "It's called B. You can tell Bloomingdale's is publishing it ... but the articles are lifestyle articles that could be in any magazine." Rosen doubts whether client-driven publications are having an influence on consumer magazines.
ASME's Ms. Kahan agrees. "I think in a sense you know what [a custom publication] is, and you know it's an advertising vehicle," she says. "But when it creeps into, I guess you could say, 'real journalism,' that's problematic."
For independent magazines, in particular, allowing marketers a stealthy foothold represents a destructive, short-term approach that could cost them loyalty and circulation, says Rogier van Bakel, an ad-watcher and former editor in chief of Creativity magazine, an offshoot of AdAge.
"What good magazines have is a remarkably close relationship with readers that no TV station and few newspapers can match," writes Mr. Van Bakel in an e-mail. "People used to trust magazines the way they trusted a good friend and confidant, and it takes a magazine years and years to build up that level of trust, that credibility."
Embedding products into stories will ultimately backfire on advertisers, Van Bakel writes, if the magazines they need squander their credibility with readers.
With regard to the Land Rover in the Ski magazine story, a staffer in Boulder, Colo., maintains that the line between advertising and articles remains clear and uncrossed.
"As far as I know, we assigned the piece to the writer and asked him to choose the vehicle that would be best for the situation," says Kellee Katagi, Ski's managing editor. "Obviously the advertisers end up loving it," she says, "but the decisionmaking process didn't include the ad department or [influence] ad-buying decisions."
The piece is a "product story," says Land Rover spokeswoman Deborah Sandford, who says the firm's public relations arm, for which she works, keeps a strict separation from its advertising division.
Ms. Sandford says she does not know whether her firm ever buys space in Ski. (Her counterpart in advertising, Natalie Bow, confirms that it does.)
A PR practice is to "pitch a journalist to drive our product," Sandford explains, and hope that the journalist sells the story to a publication.
"But never do the twain meet for us," she adds, "in the sense of crossing between public relations and advertising."
Critics don't buy it. "Whether you call it advertising or public relations really doesn't matter," says Hart. "[Publications are] still pulling one on the readers, and the end effect is the same: You're promoting a product."