Advertorial Blues

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Valid content, or lipstick on a pig?

Ive been toying with the idea of writing about advertorials for quite some time now.

Advertorials are paid print layouts, usually spanning several pages, which feature display advertising at the bottom and newsy-looking articles at the top. However, this is not news. The text is there to please the advertisers, and thus bypasses the editorial filter of the publication. For this reason, it is usually identified at the top usually in small print as advertorial or something similar.

These spread were often the bane of my existence, when I worked as managing editor at both The Herald and The Sunday Express. At The Express, we called them advertising specials, with text supplied by a freelancer who specialized in cranking out this stuff (a thankless task for which they were woefully underpaid). To qualify for an ad special, the anchor subject had to purchase at least a half-page ad, and supply a list of potential advertisers (usually their suppliers and service providers).

Advertising salespeople would call these prospects with a pitch that went something like, ACME Widgets is doing a 10th anniversary special section in our paper. Theyve been purchasing inputs from you for a long time. Would you support them with an ad? We suggest a quarter-page

Yeah, essentially they would try to guilt them into saying yes. Did salespeople ever use coercion, twisting the prospects arm by suggesting they might lose the anchors business if they refused? I dont know. But my gut says it must have happened, at least occasionally.

These ad sections always made us uncomfortable, particularly at The Express, where we worked so hard to position ourselves as fiercely independent. However, the business side of the operation insisted that these spreads were essential to our survival, so we held our nose and accommodated them identifying each spread with ADVERTISING SPECIAL across the top, in Futura Extrabold font, and placing them in the back section of the paper.

But these sections were also a problem at The Herald, where I worked during the 1980s. An ad section would begin the week at four pages, but, if the salespeople had great success selling ads, it would increase to six, eight or 10 pages by Thursday. There was the option to add pages to the magazine, but this entailed extra costs and the publisher often pushed back, asking us to squeeze it in.

Invariably, that meant cutting out other standing features or one-time articles, which diminished the quality of the publication, if incrementally. It also meant we were scrambling to find copy to flesh out those extra pages.

So, yeah, advertising sections were an irritation. And to argue about them was pointless, because they clearly did bring in a lot of bacon.

While at The Herald, I tried an experiment. Im a firm believer that every person has a story to share, a belief I applied in the research and writing of all profiles. I thought the same would apply to businesses, and business people. So I assigned our best writer to compose the text for an advertising section not just any one, but a well-known financial organization that had some story potential. The deal was, we would write a credible, impartial story about this business, and use it to fill out the advertising section. The ad salespeople were dubious, but played along.

It seemed to go well. But then, a few days after the magazine hit the stands, I received a call from the president of the business. He was not happy with the overall tone of the article, though I cannot recall why perhaps it wasnt laudatory enough and he took issue with words we used to describe the business, which in his defence were inaccurate.

I did apologize for any mistakes, but explained that we were trying to legitimize these advertising sections, by populating them with real editorial copy and putting a wall between the editorial and sales departments. I was surprised at the force of his reply. I am paraphrasing from memory, but this is the gist of it:

Look, we both know what these things are. They are advertising. We buy the ads, and you run the words that we expect to see. So dont give me that editorial independence crap.

My first impulse was to tell him where to go. I very nearly did. But editors who tell major advertisers to take a flying leap generally dont last long in any publication.

And there was this inescapable fact: he was right. I was misguided in my attempt to editorialize that which is advertising. Its place in the publication was determined by a business case advertising sales potential and not on editorial merit. To tackle it like a real story is a classic attempt to put lipstick on a pig.

This series will continue, as I bring in the voices of other people who work within the industry including a managing editor and a former advertising sales manager. Stay tuned. You might be surprised by what you read

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  • Craig
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Well, as with all these topics, my experience was not extensive, though I think nostalgically that the late 1980s was an interesting time in Newfoundland media...

    I had two notable brushes with advertorial. The first was when I was trying to catch on at the Herald. David Moores sent me off to a manufacturing concern in the Goulds. There was a longstanding series of business articles running, and David thought this represented a good chance to see if I could write. I hung out at the business for two full days. I shared my ideas and my photographs for a possible three-pager with the owner, and he asked, essentially, when I was planning to shake him down for some ads to accompany the coverage. It wasn't advertorial, of course, but the guy was sure it would be so.

    The second happened after I got hired. We were going to do a dining supplement, and the idea was that we'd get recipes from local chefs. The sales slugs, as we affectionately called them, would hassle the owners, separately. Soon after the plan was hatched, I happened to be at the restaurant that predated Don Cherry's there on Kenmount Road -- is that still there? -- and mentioned this plan to the chef. Whether it was asking for his recipes, gratis, or whether it was in anticipation of the eventual shakedown, he nearly threw me out. We eventually hired Peter Gard to write the thing, and he used his own content. The secrets of St. John's chefs were safe.