Advertorial Blues-3

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Selling the readership, not the content

While contemplating the first post in this series, and musing about my views on advertorials, I received an email from Darrell Smith, formerly a sales exec with The Downhomer (now Downhome) magazine. Purely by coincidence, Smith was writing to vent on this very subject.

I'd like to see your views some time on the watering down of editorial integrity across local media via the interference of advertising, wrote Smith, who left the magazine in 2007 to take a non-media position.

Advertorials, special sections, congratulatory 'stories', paid editorial via wink wink nudge nudge... it all drives me INSANE! The assertion by those who practice it is that readers aren't stupid, and we're not insulting their intelligence because they can spot the difference and they really don't mind is baloney! If I see a news story on a website that says ABC Company wins award and then I hear an ad for the company on the same radio station, that media outlet loses credibility unless the award is something really special and important.

Smith said he sold print advertising for five years, and ran The Downhomes sales department for half that time. I was blown away at the pressure from advertisers and some agencies to write a story in return for an ad, he said. I actually had a local book publisher once say to me we know how it works... we buy an ad and we get a good review published. Our view (even in Sales) at the time was that as a long-term strategy it was best to protect the integrity of the editorial, and the advertising would continue to grow on the product's merits. I can't speak for whether or not that's still the case, but it served us well during my tenure for sure with advertising growth significantly outpacing circulation growth over the same period. My explanation to advertisers was simple...if readers stop reading, it won't do anyone any good.

Smith said the one area where the publication was lax at times was in the marketing of ads to a specific industry because an upcoming issue would feature that industry.

This always pained me, Smith said. Even this amount of interference had disastrous potential long-term effects, since you were training your advertisers to buy based on editorial, not on readership. If any publisher or owner has a sales manager who promotes the use of any of these tools, my view is that they're either feeling way too much pressure from above for immediate return or they're not looking out for the long-term interest of the medium itself and will probably not be around to see it collapse. Smith said it is the responsibility of the media not advertisers or agencies to protect the integrity of its own products.

With you writing about this, hopefully media owners and publishers will notice and maybe some will see the light. If nothing else, it'd be great for them to sit back and take stock of whether their growth strategies are sound in the long term. In an age where a brand's perception among customers is shaped more by bloggers and anonymous users than large advertising budgets, being dubbed a sell-out can kill a business in no time.

Smith recalled attending national magazine conferences where larger national magazines were amazed with the relationships Downhome had with readers. At that time, we were getting more than 500 submissions per month from readers. At the heart of this was trust something that takes years to build and seconds to destroy.

If you work in this business, you will know how unusual it is to read comments like that from a former sales manager. Most of the time, its the editor saying this sort of thing, while the salespeople look for new ways around and under the editorial fence. I asked Smith how he came about these views was it drummed in during a marketing course, or something he gleaned on the job?

My approach grew out of work experience, he replied. Barb Young, a former sales manager of mine, was adamant about keeping the separation and our editor, Vince Hempsall, was equally as protective. They were both fairly experienced in publishing and kept what seemed to be old-school rules, so knowing nothing about the business I just followed suit. It wasn't until later on, in my role as Sales Manager, that their reasons became a bit more clear.

In his time as sales manager at the magazine, Smith did encounter salespeople who wanted more influence on the editorial side.

But I tried my hardest to keep the separation, he said. Here's why: Imagine that in January, we had a blockbuster month - an advertorial on mining, oil and gas, etc., with help from editorial and a ton of advertisers beating down the door. Great! Now, what is editorial doing for us in February, March, and April? As a Sales Manager, you're training staff to become dependant on content instead of their own efforts, and to use editorial as a crutch. It's an easier sell (I won't say 'easy' because nothing about any sort of ad sales is easy, believe me!). As a salesperson you're supposed to sell the readership, not the content.

So heres the question: Whats Downhome like lately? The mag has moved largely though not entirely away from its nostalgic Newfoundland roots, with a primary focus on lifestyle. Have its advertising policies changed since Darrell left, in 2007?

I have two recent copies on my desk, from August and September of this year. I thumbed through both, and my findings are surprising.

The August issue contains editorial spreads about handmade crafts, bed and breakfast establishments, and local book reviews. Yet these layouts contain no ads for craft producers, tourism operators or book publishers. Impressive.

The September issue is also a surprise, with one qualification. There is an 11-page spread on interior design, for the living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and patio. Many other publications run these features for the sole purpose of drawing advertisers. Astonishingly, there are NO ads to be seen anywhere in this feature. Imagine a home dcor piece presented for the benefit of the reader not the advertiser. This is remarkable.

The same issue contains a six-page story about Marine Atlantics new vessel, the Atlantic Vision. There are no ads within the piece, though there is a full-page ad for Marine Atlantic on page seven a full 61 pages away from the spread itself (its likely that the marketing folks at Marine Atlantic found out about the article, and elected to run an ad in the same edition a situation over which Downhome has no control.) The article itself was balanced, addressing the full range of complaints from passengers, with favourable comments as well. Unfortunately, it ends with a paragraph that shoots it all to pieces:

My overall impression was that, with some tweaking, the Atlantic Vision will be a valuable asset to Marine Atlantics fleet. Besides, a ferry that carries Downhome in its gift shop cant be all bad, can it?

I realize the writer was trying to write to the magazines disarming, folksy style, and the balance presented elsewhere in the article demonstrates this is not a suck piece. Bottom line: any article attempting to address a contentious issue like the Atlantic Vision cant afford to conclude in such an offhand way. In any other publication, this would be an instant cred killer. In the Downhome, most readers wont bat en eye.

This gaffe notwithstanding, I am impressed that Downhome caters to readers first.

On a national level, one of the worst advertorial offenders is Macleans magazine. Its editors and writers have worked hard over the last few years to build an entertaining, provocative publication with its own unique approach to news and commentary. And now they are selling it off wholesale, with all the discretion of drunken sailors.

Pretty much every issue of Macleans contains a supplement, sometimes prefaced by an adjective. Lately, theyve been using Information supplement a lot, dealing with subjects like health care, personal finance, and others. In the November 30 edition, there is a spread about diabetes, headlined Diabetes in our midst: New challenges, new discoveries.

The font used in the headline and body text is different from elsewhere in the magazine, but otherwise it looks like editorial content. The Information supplement heading on top of the page is hard to see small point size, printed in white type on a light grey banner. It is designed to be practically invisible.

Even if you did see it, what does the word supplement mean? In my dictionary, it is synonymous with extra, enhance, improve, accompany or augment. In no way does it mean sales or advertising. This, then, is a lie. It is intentionally deceptive. And it is a violation of advertising-editorial guidelines established by Magazines Canada.

Macleans is quickly flushing its hard-won credibility and integrity down the toilet, and thats a crying shame.

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  • Mike
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    These have been interesting comments on the use of advertorials Geoff. As a consumer of these media I don't object to the use of advertorials or support pieces to an ad or the other way around. The more info I can get on a product or service the better and I find that if nothing else these ads are accurate. I feel confident in my ability to separate the ads from the real stories. That's why I just renewed my yearly subscription to MacLeans Magazine. Should a publication or outlet prostitute itself for an ad then I feel confident I will recognize that and will assign it the value it is worth.