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exploring how the world works and why it works that way …

That strange sucking sound …

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If you’re an advertiser, you want your ad placed in an environment highly amenable to persuasion.

That’s no news to anyone in either the ad biz or the news biz — especially in the U.S.

But it was to me, lo these many years ago, as I placed a story about a fatal airliner crash on an inside page … wherein rested an ad for a major American airline.

When I arrived at work the next day, the publisher (he of the beefy red, angry face), chewed me out and showed a copy of the ad contract with said airline. In as many words, it said: If you place news on a page with our ad that shows the airlines in a negative light (like a plane crash?), then pull the ad.

So I’m a little less than shocked when British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley try to tear down the “church vs. state” wall between advertising and editorial. Frankly, that wall has been porous for a very long time.

Morgan Stanley and BP both ask, no, order, publications to yank ads and inform them if the surrounding editorial content represents their businesses — not just their particular companies — in a poor light. AdAge.com broke the BP story as well as the Morgan Stanley policy.

These policies differ from the “when in doubt, pull the ad” approach I learned in the newsroom. According to AdAge, BP’s policy is unequivocally blunt:

According to a copy of a memo on the letterhead of BP’s media-buying agency, WPP Group’s MindShare, the global marketer has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward editorial coverage it is not informed about in advance, “regardless of whether editorial is deemed positive or negative.”

That’s a significant difference: deemed either positive or negative. And the consequences of not following the policy? BP is blunt about its reaction. According to AdAge, BP’s memo:

states that if MindShare [BP’s ad agency] is not notified of the mentions prior to the issue’s on-sale date, immediate advertising schedule suspension will “likely result.” (emphasis mine)

Increasingly, it appears, heavy advertisers want to know before publication about any mention of any aspect of the company or the business it’s involved or … all scheduled future advertising will be canceled. That’s up a notch or two from just negative mentions.

In a May 30 story (sorry, no link available yet), AdAge quotes former newsroom luminaries turned J-school deans and professors such as Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Steve Shepard, former editor of Businessweek; and unnamed spokesflacks for the American Society of Magazine Editors and American Business Media (trade group for B-to-B mags). “It raises ethical issues” — Shepard. “It’s a real threat to editorial independence” — Roberts. The trade groups echoed the sanctimony with references to maintaining high ethical standards for editorial.

How likely is it that an editor of a publication — newspaper or magazine — driven by advertising revenue will not be wary of pissing off the hand that feeds it?

Decades ago, newspapers and magazines feared irritating Big Tobacco for fear of losing ad revenue — and it was substantial (see Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly for a detailed discussion).

The “wall” between the business and editorial sides of newspapers exists in name only. It has entirely vanished in magazines (why do you think Ms. went subscription-only as its revenue base years ago?)

Newspapers cite editorial independence repeatedly. But examine your own newspapers. It has sections. Examine the news content relative to ad content in each section. If it’s Wednesday, your paper likely has a “Food” or “Market Basket” or “Good Taste” section. Do you see in that section stories critical of the foodstuffs or services industries? Nope. And I bet you see section fronts with full page, four-color illustrations of lovely-looking foods with several recipes. Examine the ingredients. See any brand names? The newspaper received the content from, oh, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, dairy and milk or cheese trade groups or a major food manufacturer. That ain’t editorial — that’s advertising.

Try the same analysis with the automotive section (usually on Fridays) or the “Leisure” or “Weekend” sections (usually on Thursdays). Ditto the real-estate section.

These sections provide “friendly” homes to advertisers, particularly national advertisers — and the advertisers count on it and, as we now see, enforce that warm, fuzzy, “buy it now” environment. As newspapers lose staff, through cuts and attrition because of bottom-line pressures, editors’ willingness to accept industry-provided material and present it as editorial content increases.

This cozy though sometimes discomforting cooperation between advertisers and editors didn’t begin with Morgan Stanley and BP. And it was AdAge that made an issue of this, not the New York Times. (I wonder why …)

The consequences, writes lullabypit in Death of a Milk Cow:

The viability of the paper as an ad medium is precisely equal to its ability to attract readers. And readers are attracted by meaningful content. Publishers need to remember that most consumers buy a paper (or watch a TV show, listen to a radio station, etc.) despite the advertising (I mean, this isn’t a new concept, and they have heard of TiVo, I’m guessing). The more closely we associate a medium with advertising, the less value it has to advertisers (emphasis mine).

… and less value to readers — or would-be readers — as well.

Numerous surveys and polls (some well done, some not) point out the declining credibility of newspapers in particular and journalism in general. As the newspaper industry tries gimmicks to induce the young to read them, how likely is that knowledge of advertiser-editorial chicanery will keep them out of the readership tent?

The tepid “oh it ain’t ethical” response from news side types is part of that gasping sound something makes as it going under for the last time …

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

June 2, 2005 at 5:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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