HOLMES REPORT: Push to include paid advertising in magazine articles will cheapen effect of media relations

If marketers get their way, the value of media relations will be reduced to the point that the discipline no longer has purpose. Does that sound hyperbolic to you? If so, maybe you haven't been keeping up with the discussion over product placement in magazine articles. A growing number of marketing professionals are clamoring for magazines to tear down the wall between "church and state" and insert paid product plugs directly into editorial, without providing readers with any indication that the products in question paid for inclusion.

If marketers get their way, the value of media relations will be reduced to the point that the discipline no longer has purpose. Does that sound hyperbolic to you? If so, maybe you haven't been keeping up with the discussion over product placement in magazine articles. A growing number of marketing professionals are clamoring for magazines to tear down the wall between "church and state" and insert paid product plugs directly into editorial, without providing readers with any indication that the products in question paid for inclusion.

Matthew Spahn, director of media planning at Sears Roebuck, was recently quoted in an advertising trade advocating a "more creative" approach to editorial placements "working in much less traditional ways ... becoming a part of the storyline, in ways that readers or viewers will still be interested in consuming that material." But Spahn is clearly not alone. Editors of titles like Modern Bride say they are facing more pressure from advertisers, and a former Maxim editor claimed last year that editorial pages were reviewed by the magazine's ad department: When products from non-advertisers were mentioned by name, they would be replaced by advertisers' products. The American Society of Magazine Editors objects, but can't stop the blurring of lines. Some marketers see the placement of product names in editorial as a natural extension of product placement in reality TV shows, which ranges from the omnipresent Coke can in front of American Idol judge Simon Cowell to the use of specific products - including tools from Sears - in the growing number of home-makeover shows. But there's a big difference between reality shows - which are primarily intended for entertainment - and news shows and magazines, which must remain independent to maintain their credibility. Those same marketers obviously believe the implied third-party endorsement of an editorial mention can have more impact than ads. But, of course, the reason for that increased impact is the presumed objectivity of the writer. In other words, the third-party endorsement only has value as long as the reader believes in the writer's independence. As soon as marketers begin to undermine the integrity of the editorial process, third-party endorsement loses its meaning. You can't take more control over the delivery of messages without losing credibility. That's why PR pros need to tell their marketing counterparts that this push to subvert editorial independence is a mistake. In the long term, it will simply make editorial coverage as suspect as paid advertising. Once that happens, media relations might as well be renamed media buying, and PR people will have lost one of their most effective communications options.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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