FEATURE: The rise of pay-for-play

The debate about product placement in print media is heating up.

The debate about product placement in print media is heating up.

The July/August of Islands magazine, a service-oriented travel glossy full of breathtaking vistas of tropical destinations, features a pullout article about Hawaii's local food scene. In many ways, the article - printed on quality paper that the magazine's upscale readership can keep - is an advertiser's dream. But the idea for the packaging did not come from the magazine's advertising side. It came from its editors. With the coverage of Hawaii's boutique farms, restaurants and food festivals already in hand, those who marshaled the story into print wanted to figure out a way to, as editor-in-chief Lisa Gosselin puts it, "enhance our relationship with readers." "On the editorial side," she says, "we wondered if there's an advertiser who would like to overprint this. We ended up going to Aloha Airlines and they decided to sponsor the back of the page, which will allow us to pay for heavier stock and make it a pullout. And they will overprint it and use it for their customers." She adds, "We're not writing about Aloha Airlines. We're not writing about anything we weren't writing about anyway, but we are trying to make it a more useful story for the reader and broaden the audience." The development of this Islands story is decidedly not an instance of pay-per-play, but instead an example of how a back-and-forth between the editorial and business sides can work to further the creative and commercial quality of a publication. It also demonstrates how much the barrier between those two sides, often described as church and state, has been whittled away - and how that's not necessarily a bad thing, despite all the media interest in the issue. Much of the coverage, in publications from The Christian Science Monitor to Advertising Age, has framed explorations of the state of church and state as investigations into whether the most extreme manifestations of the loosening of the editorial-business divide - namely, product placement deals wherein a company, usually an advertiser, pays for placement in editorial content - are becoming commonplace in magazines. While publishing and marketing observers disagree on just how common these deals are, they concur on one point: that publishers and magazine sales staff are now under increasing pressure to think beyond old vehicles like ad pages and advertorials. "Publishers are much more willing to go the extra mile and explore things they might not have explored three or four years ago because they've been hurting," says Tony Silber, managing partner of M10 Report, whose online and print publications cover the magazine industry. "And marketers, to their credit, are always looking for new ways to connect to [current] and potential customers." Says Kim Olson, director of brand PR for General Mills, "It depends on the magazine and publisher, but I see much more openness to [product placement] now than there ever has been before. Where it used to be church and state, there is much more of a willingness to come together and at least discuss it - not always a willingness to do, but a willingness to discuss." Impact on PR pros If it were to become de rigueur, straight-up payment for editorial placement could have major implications for the way magazines are consumed and, by extension, for the marketing efforts, including PR, that go on in between the covers. Like any journalistic outlet, magazines are important to PR pros because of their credibility with readers, who visit them with the presumption that editors and writers are bringing a critical mindset to articles and that they're not influenced by commercial pressures. As a result, many PR experts share magazine editors' distaste at the notion of tainting editorial space with marketing pushes. "No editor I work with would put something in editorial columns that's a pay-for-placement because they'd lose the trust of the reader," says Lauren Swartz, media relations manager for New York-based agency M. Booth & Associates. "The line between editorial and advertising should be clear." "I feel the same way about product placements in magazines as I do in television and movies," says Al Ries, author of The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR and, more recently, The Origin of Brands. "I think they destroy the trust that readers and viewers have with the articles or programming." Trust is a word that comes up often in discussions of the marketing effects of product placement. Though magazines are highly valued as marketing vehicles, the public's trust in the media is always low, a trend that hasn't been helped by newspaper scandals at The New York Times and USA Today. That, coupled with magazines' ever-increasing editorial pushing of product, perhaps reaching its apotheosis in shop- ping magazines like Condé Nast's Lucky and Cargo and in the growing availability of custom publications, could do further damage, rightly or wrongly, to that trust. And pretty much everyone agrees that the concept is integral to the role of magazines in society and to the industry's success as a business. "The best thing you can do for an advertiser is to have strong editorial," says Islands' Gosselin. "That means that the readers believe the magazine, they trust it, and they think that it's an authority. Anything that erodes that is equally damaging to the advertiser as it is to the reader. Advertisers are essentially buying the relationship that the magazine has with the reader. If that relationship isn't strong, a reader is going to be less likely to pay attention to the advertising in that issue." The same goes for the companies and products that appear in the editorial space, which is part and parcel of the job for PR. It begs the question: If indeed marketers and advertisers are pushing hard to extend their reach into editorial spaces, traditionally the realm of PR people, shouldn't they try to carve out a role for themselves here? After all, PR people often worry about getting left behind in the marketing mix and having their roles reduced to mere traditional media relations. Wouldn't product placement offer an opportunity to do more integrated work? There are at least two ways to answer this question. For Ries, who has written much about the role of PR versus that of advertising, it's a firm "no." "There is another reason why I think that PR people should avoid pushing for concepts like this," he says. "In my opinion, when a client, or its PR agent, 'pays' for something, it's advertising. PR is all about enlisting the support of independent, objective, third parties. Paying for product placement puts PR people in the same boat as advertising." General Mills' Olson's answer is a bit more complex. "Everything we're being asked to do as marketers is about surrounding the consumers," she says, "and we all know you have to hit them not only once but in five different ways. An ideal program has your PR, advertising, and promotions hitting them several different times on the same messaging. If product placement in magazines helps us surround the consumer, I think that's wonderful. Anything that makes the integration of marketing services easier and make more sense is going to positive." Then, she adds, "A caveat is that it could undermine PR's greatest selling point, which is third-party credibility. We're going to have to be careful about that and we're going to have to be champions of our craft to make sure we're not compromising what ends up being our biggest selling point." Olson points to television as a possible analogy that demonstrates how product placement can devolve from a smart way to get a brand in the public eye to just another way of uselessly saturating consumers with empty messaging. "You had some very skillful things done in the early day," she says. "Where the brand made sense you had some very nice placements. But as you got into reality TV, with smaller and smaller budgets, you have hour-long shows that are commercials for products - whether it's The Restaurant with American Express or American Idol and Coca-Cola. With those things, you have to walk a fine line. The magazines are behind where the television shows have already gone and can learn from the experiences there because at some point you're going to turn off your consumer." Outlets for product placement Hard-news titles will be less likely to entertain product-placement deals than will entertainment-focused publications. Silber says that's the way it's always been. "Product placement is certain magazines is as old as the hills, if you look at shelter magazines or fashion magazines or teen magazines," he says. "If you look at shelter magazines, they are going to have advertisers' products in their decorated spreads of homes." It's worth noting that it isn't just publishers' and advertisers' bottom lines that determine how far marketers will go in pushing the boundary of the church and state divide. The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) polices the line. ASME posts editorial guidelines on its website that, among other things, mandate that editors have final say over editorial content and that advertising be clearly labeled as such. "If anyone violates [the guidelines] willfully and egregiously, we will kick an editor out of ASME," says executive director Marlene Kahan. "But we haven't done this yet." A violating publication could also be deemed ineligible for the National Magazine Awards. Despite the media attention to the issue, Kahan is optimistic that editors will stand firm in maintaining their product's integrity. "The pressure is not that intense yet, but, depending on the economy and how advertisers view things, that could change," she says. "I think people put more trust in what they read in magazines and, we're guessing here, but I don't think readers will welcome it."

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