When does an editor's involvement with advertisers' products cross the line?
Don't compromise yourself. You are all you've got. -- Janis Joplin
At the recent MagNet conference I heard some examples of where editors involved themselves deeply in the advertising sales and promotional activities of their publications.
In one instance, three editors in one company permitted their own kitchens to be photographed for a special section, with all the appliances on countertops replaced with those sold by the sole major advertiser.
In another, the editor actively participated in a contest in which readers picked their preferred kitchen from among the offerings of a major advertiser and the winning kitchen was installed and photographed in the editor's home .
There have been other, recent examples of editors crossing over into marketing, notably the
editorpublisher of Canadian House & Home, Lynda Reeves, posing on the cover of a "flip book" done in conjunction with Procter and Gamble. (In earlier examples, magazines have permitted the use of editorial pages to allow acetate overlays of ads.)
Whether this is the result of pressure editors are feeling from advertisers and their own publishers, or whether they no longer see any clear boundaries concerning editorial integrity and separation of ads and editorial, the central question is what readers think and what's good for the long-term health of magazines.
Some editors I have spoken with say that their integrity is intact and that readers are not misled. Others say that being flexible is a reflection of new economic realities. Still others bristle at any implication that they might have sold out. But I sincerely wonder if readers will, as a result, come to regard all content as part of paid hustle.
We are, after all, in the business of renting advertisers access to readers in an editorial environment readers trust. Can/will readers distinguish the editorial pages from the ad pages and do they care if they can't? With the editor's presence in a photo shoot that has been styled with advertisers' products, will readers infer it as an endorsement? And is there anything that the industry can do to clarify this?
A few months ago, the latest iteration of the magazine industry advertising-editorial guidelines was published (I was a member of the task force revising them). While it does not specifically preclude editors appearing in ads in their own magazines (perhaps it should) the intent of the guidelines is clearly set out in the introduction.
Magazine readers value both editorial content and advertising as sources of information. The integrity and long-term viability of magazines depends, however, on a clear distinction between the two—without it, both editorial and advertising lose credibility with the reader.
The blurring of ad-edit lines is proceeding apace in magazine websites, what with "takeover" pages and popups and ad placements and microsites produced by the same people who design the editorial pages. So far, the ad-edit lines remain a little more distinct in print, but this seems to be eroding. And when the editorial gatekeepers are willing participants in blurring the lines, it seems to be less and less necessary for any pressure to be applied by advertisers or their own publishers.