FOURTH ESTATE: Too Close For Comfort

At lunch tables from New York’s Royalton to Remi, magazine editors were stunned. While most acknowledge that the wall between advertising and editorial is crumbling, the debate raged whether Vogue’s publisher Ron Galotti had just taken an Uzi and blown it away.
In cahoots with Elizabeth Arden, Vogue asked its marketing staff to define its customer. The research showed that one way for Arden to gain customers was to put its products into the hands of Vogue readers. So Galotti and company came up with a novel idea: Each month, Vogue’s 50,000 most affluent subscribers would get a free product sample in the mail. In return, Vogue would run more Arden ads. Magazine, marketer: What’s the difference? And Vogue isn’t alone.
A recent New York Times story reported that magazine sales staffs are devising new ways to build profits for advertisers in exchange for that dwindling ad dollar. Reader’s Digest first conceived this “partnership” concept. After identifying the potential illnesses of its readers, the magazine sends them booklets with articles and prescription drug ads targeted to their ailments.
Of course, this cozy relationship is not without critics, who worry that this new intimacy between advertisers and editorial will affect coverage. They ask: Will catering to advertisers’ wishes destroy a free press? Is editorial integrity passe?
Consider the following: Fortune wrote a cover story on IBM’s CEO Louis V.
Gerstner Jr., describing him as arrogant. Gerstner was as good as its word. He had the arrogance to pull the plug on a reported $6 million worth of advertising. Will the editors of Fortune be so bold next time?
Ron Perelman, the Napoleonic leader of Revlon, was upset by an Esquire article on his then-wife Patricia Duff – and pulled advertising. Premiere nixed an article on Planet Hollywood because Perelman, co-owner of the magazine, is friendly with the restaurant’s president Robert Earl.
Now, capitulating to pressure over pesky personality profiles is one thing; killing important stories is another. For instance, Esquire yanked a 16-page story on gay sex last year, fearing reprisals from Chrysler, the nation’s fifth-largest magazine advertiser. Pentacom, Chrysler’s media-buying agency, sent a letter to 100 top magazines requiring advance notice of “any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” Bravado? Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, which have similar policies, spent $3.6 billion on ads in ’96.
This episode triggered discussions of free speech and censorship and united magazine editors last fall. The American Society of Magazine Editors, which represents 860 editors, urging publications not to submit advance notice of editorial content. Chrysler backed down amid the outrage.
The ever-outspoken Galotti was unmoved by ASME’s ire. “We have a relationship with our clients – they spend a lot of money. I’m not involved in public service. It’s a business. And the last time I checked, most of these publications were substantially supported by advertisers.” P.O.V. founder Drew Massey said he plans to continue advising Chrysler but “will never pull or edit copy to satisfy an advertiser.” It’s a subtle distinction.
Magazines don’t give advertisers a sneak preview, which would amount to prior restraint. They warn them about material that relates to their product and offer to move ads to future issues. Newspapers routinely pull airplane advertising as a courtesy when there are plane crashes. But almost anything can be considered controversial.
Diaper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark doesn’t want its products near articles devoid of “happy baby” material. If every advertiser had such a “good news” requirement, how would parents learn about sudden infant death syndrome?
Clearly, it’s hard to make ground rules for maintaining journalistic integrity when a publication addresses this issue on a case-by-case basis. No one expects Vogue to give objective advice on beauty. The sheer dresses touted in ’97 were hardly practical attire for working women or anyone else, save downtown denizens who haunt clubs where dark lighting is de rigueur. Vogue’s editorial objectivity is as transparent as many of these dresses.
Cosmetics ads fall into the same category of hype. For example, Chanel’s suntan cream is priced around $25. Estƒe Lauder’s lotion retails at $15. Generic brands are sold for approximately $4.50. If anyone is interested in a breakdown of cost-value relationships, they can read Consumer Reports. Generic brands are just as good as name brands; the difference is the packaging. Choosing Delectable Pink by Clinique instead of Maybelline isn’t life altering.
After all, many consumers of beauty products are motivated by status purchases. So if a reporter is assigned a piece on the new lipstick colors for spring, it doesn’t really matter whether they tout Elizabeth Arden or Chanel. Similarly, shelter magazines often place advertised products in layouts if there is a choice between two products of equal design and value, says Jean Lemmon, editor-in-chief of Better Homes & Gardens.
But omitting information that affects the safety of readers is a different story. Having a reporter censor a piece on auto safety to avoid advertiser pressure benefits no one. Let’s assume there’s a problem with a certain car’s brake system. In this particular advertising-first climate, this essential fact may not run – despite the public’s right to know.
That’s why magazine editors are far more disturbed by Chrysler, which vowed to reduce its ads and scrutinize content more aggressively. Still, it’s costly to take the high road. When Grace Mirabella started Mirabella magazine in 1989, she refused to run cigarette ads. Her husband, a prominent lung surgeon, knew the dangerous consequences of smoking.
Mirabella also knew that cancer rates were rising among women. But despite her editorial principles, she relented. “The money was too good to turn down,” she laments. She did, however, print articles about lung cancer – and she alerted her advertisers. They subsequently pulled their ads for that month. “It was easier to turn down one or two ad pages a year, but not month after month.”
Yet advertisers’ clout is such that most magazines don’t report on lung cancer as often as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and skin cancer, which are openly discussed. Why? They don’t offend advertisers.
Alexander Ringe, a former section editor at Harper’s, even admitted to The Boston Globe that his magazine was leery of printing articles that offended advertisers. “I found we were censoring ourselves before advertisers were shown something that might be objectionable.”
There’s nothing new about advertisers trying to influence editorial content. It’s a natural tension. It’s clear that an “objective” editorial piece is more effective with the public than an ad. If it weren’t, publicists and spin doctors would not be in demand. But if publishers capitulate to advertisers, isn’t the integrity of a magazine compromised? Ironically, advertisers depend on a magazine’s sensibility to enhance product placement.
“With TV, it’s a case of supply and demand, and right now, the demand for commercial time exceeds the supply,” says Kevin Goldman, a former advertising writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of Conflicting Accounts. “Magazines are different. There’s a finite number of advertisers that want to be in a particular book. If Chrysler pulls out of an issue, the pool of advertisers that might take its place is shallow.”
It’s worth noting, however, that reporters sometimes err on the side of omission. As Jerry Nachman, a former news director for WNBC-TV and currently a writer for Politically Incorrect, says, “Sometimes journalists feverishly attempt to look disinterested and omit references to advertisers that are involved with perfectly newsworthy products or services.” In fact, sometimes he noticed that reporters actually “discriminated” against advertisers.
For instance? Nachman recalls NBC reporters omitting General Electric items from product roundups for fear they would look like hucksters for their parent company. Had GE not owned NBC at the time, the reference would have been included. “It’s exactly the opposite of what critics feared: Everyone worried that in-house journalists would roll over for their new corporate masters. Instead, they felt they had to do just the opposite,” he says.
What’s the ideal balance? Give editorial consideration to advertisers but don’t allow them to dictate editorial policy.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. It takes a determined publisher to put principle before profit.