Without going into statistics, it seems very clear to me that the press cannot tolerate much further loss of credibility and respect. The Los Angeles Times recently1 raised the ire of its readers and journalists who objected to its front page being used as a wrap-around- a commercial billboard. It sported a full-colour headshot of Johnny Depp in his role as the Mad Hatter in Disney's new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. The newspaper went to some length to ensure readers didn't merely flip the page in search of news; the photo was superimposed on old and fake editorial content- which gave time for Depp's maniacal image to become etched onto readers' unconscious things-to-do list.
It appears to me there's more deception in print media these days than in a Shakespearean play, and trusted publications are in danger of becoming "shoppers" or "flyers" in drag.
Advertising has its place. Companies need to peddle their wares. But I like to have the choice of whether or not I want to be sold to. I'd like to pick up a newspaper or magazine feeling confident that what I'm reading is trustworthy news or information that isn't bundled with a marketing scheme. The line between ad and editorial is being blurred to the point that the choice to block out advertising is being taken from us, right before our eyes.
Another example: I was sitting in my favorite mom-and-pop café recently, uncurled my morning paper, turned to the Homes Section to read anything about- well, buying a
home. A few pages into the section was a two-page spread focusing on a new condo development. The article touted the development's avant-garde design as a feather in the hat of the architect and developer and boasted that each apartment had been outfitted with state-of-the-art appliances. The story read like an advertisement. But it had a by-line, and its format didn't appear different from other stories in the paper. I nearly coughed up my muffin at the thought that I had, perhaps, been tricked into reading a ventriloquized sales pitch. In a matter of seconds I went from confusion to anger. I don't think this was the kind of reaction that the developer wanted.
Kelly McBride, an ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a prominent American journalism organization, seems equally annoyed at the dubious practice of publications using staff or contributing writers to pen advertisements in order to give us the impression they are editorial matter. In Maria Aspan's New York Times article "A Magazine Interview or an Ad?Read the Fine Print,"2 McBride complained that "As a member of the audience, how do I know where [a writer's] loyalties are when I see his byline on something else?"
As my coffee sat idle, losing much of its mellowness to my fractious state-of-mind, I wondered if other news features in my daily paper were advertisements in disguise. I questioned if perhaps I should be more cautious about what I read- or believe. I thought about how often I may have been duped into buying products, or at least into thinking that a newspaper or magazine endorses them. I even scanned a few articles for signs of product placement.
Of course, there are at least two sides to every story, and the debate on how clean the separation between ad and editorial ought to be is no exception. According to Advertorial.org, a company that produces what are known as advertorials-advertisements that read like editorial matter- such news and feature-mimicking ads are not the wolves in sheep's clothing many critics make them out to be. Advertorials "inform your prospective buyers, while at the same time [promoting] your product," they claim on their Web site.3 They make people aware of what's on the market; they educate people, as editorials and similar content often do. As Deborah Carr of Writing Services comments, they also have "more credibility with the readership than an advertisement."4
And why wouldn't media use any means available to draw us into an ad? It's the advertising dollar that's paying for most of the protein-rich editorial material- news commentary, features, opinion- that muscles-up our flabby intellects and keeps us aware and in touch with the world. Think about all the journalists, editors, proofreaders and printers that need to earn a living. And paper and ink certainly aren't cheap. Mix shrinking advertising budgets with free online editions, blend in a readership that, because of being constantly bombarded with ads, regards advertising as noise, and what's a publication to do but to dream up more imaginative-and occasionally sneaky-ways to help businesses get their messages across?
In the case of advertorials, it is the readers' relationship to a publication that advertisers want to cash in on. But it's a case of the goose and the golden egg. What happens when readers lose their trust that a respected publication is giving them the straight goods? How far will high-quality magazines and newspapers go to stay in the black? The pressure on publications to attract ad revenue is so great that concerned professional bodies such as the American and the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors have created a set of guidelines on how magazines ought to behave concerning ads. These include recommendations that ad layout, design and typeface be markedly different from news stories, feature articles and editorials, and that if ads too closely resemble the other kinds of content they should be clearly labelled as advertisements. According to CSME, "The integrity and long term viability of magazines depends on a clear distinction between editorial and advertising, or both lose credibility, eventually, so too will the magazine."5
But do guidelines work? Not according to T. Cameron and Kuen Hee Ju-Pak whose research, published in the Newspaper Research Journal,6suggests that newspapers in the U. S. using advertorials "do not fully comply with purported editorial standards." Their study indicates that "newspapers do more to signal the commercial nature of advertorials than was found using the same content analytical methods in magazine studies." One might assume from Cameron and Ju-Pak's findings that newspapers are more ethical about ads than magazines. This doesn't seem to have been the case with the Los Angeles Times whose Alice in Wonderland ad doesn't come near meeting ASME's guideline that "the front cover and spine [of magazines] are editorial space" and that "companies and products should appear on covers only in an editorial context and not in a way that suggests advertisement."7
With so much craftiness in advertising these days, it usually takes a discerning eye and a small dose of cynicism to separate information from manipulation. The Los Angeles Times attempt described at the start of this article was blatant, and used what traditionally has been "editorial space." Print media has its head in a rabbit hole, however, if it thinks readers are going to be more forgiving than the Red Queen after they've being hornswoggled into reading an ad. Next time you settle into a newspaper or magazine story check if there's any fine print. It's always been a "reader beware" world, but the bar is being raised, and you'd be as mad as a hatter to believe that the printed word is beyond reproach.
References 1. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6250BL20100306 2. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/03/ business/media/03premiere.html 3. http://www.advertorial.org/faq.html 4. http://www.deborahcarr.ca/advertorial.htm 5. http://www.canadianeditors.com/News/article/sid=2.html 6. Glen T. Cameron and Kuen-Hee Ju-Pak, "Information Pollution? Labeling and Format of Advertorials," Newspaper Research Journal 21:2, (Winter 2000). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3677/is_200001/ai_n8901327/?tag=content;col1 7. http://kellyawards.net/asme/asme_ guidelines/guidelines.aspx