Deborah Melman-Clement
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Counterfeit Copy

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Advertorials: Dollars for a magazine wooden nickels for readers

The year is 1956. A wide-eyed, baby-faced young journalist, fresh from his first professional stint at Maclean Hunter, decides he’s ready for the Big Time: The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. There are no immediate openings, but he is given the opportunity to write for The Globe on a freelance basis. When the first assignment comes his way, he gladly accepts. He doesn’t care what it’s about-it would be a Globe story with his byline on it. It’s too good to be true. In fact, it’s better. For it is not merely a story, but an entire section of the newspaper.

The young writer had been commissioned to write a l6-page supplement on the Canadian retail jewelry business, a subject he didn’t care about. But that hardly mattered. He picked up his notepad and interviewed 15 members of the Canadian retail jewelry community, and easily filled his 16 pages.

It wasn’t the stuff of award-winning journalism, nor was it supposed to be. “The thing was just to put out the copy,” he recalls. “You wouldn’t tell any actual lies, but you also wouldn’t say anything very interesting or controversial: nothing with an edge on it, no irony, no drama, no conflict. Nothing. None of the things that make writing worth reading.”

That baby-faced young writer was Robert Fulford. He would later distinguish himself as the editor of Saturday Night from 1968 to 1987. The author of six books, he is now a columnist at The Financial Times and an instructor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism.

Advertorials, as those supplements are known today, haven’t changed much over the last three decades. Theyb don’t stun you with hard, cold facts. They don’t make you think. They don’t cover all sides of an issue. All they do is fill ~p space between paid advertisements. But now they are more prominent than ever in magazines and newspapers across Canada and the US. “Advertorial is to journalism what Muzak is to music,” Fulford says today. “Muzak fills up the dead air in elevators. Advertorials just fill up the empty spaces between the ads-so you don’t have a lot of ads running side by side.”

Although they are clearly lacking in journalistic substance, it is the form of advertorials which the magazine community sees as the biggest danger. Advertorials are designed to look like editorial copy, and they carry only a small disclaimer across the top or bottom of the page telling the reader that they are, in fact, advertisement. “It’s essentially an advertisement masquerading as an editorial product,” says Marq de V illiers, editor of Toronto Life magazine. A staunch opponent of advertorials, de Villiersrefuses to allow them in his magazine. “It’s a fraudulent medium,” he says.

Despite the opposition of editors like de Villiers and Fulford, advertorials seem to be a trend that won’t go away. They have become a fixture in many American magazines, and here in Canada they are the staple of controlled circulation magazines such as Goodlife. They have also found their way into the pages of Canadian consumer magazines, notably Saturday Night and Canadian Business. But the most frequent perpetrator of advertorials is Maclean’s, which runs 10 to 12 advertorial sections a year.

Donald Ladkin, Maclean’s advertising sales director, introduced advertorials into the magazine in 1980, but he says, “We’ve only become fairly serious about it in the past two years.”

The reason for the upsurge is clear. According to Ladkin, the advertorial sections alone bring in $2 million in revenue a year. A page of advertorial sells for $23,000. Multiply that by an average of 16 pages a section, 10 times a year, and Ladkin’s estimate seems conservative.

In describing his operation, Ladkin says, “We simply build a theme that we think is important and that can be supported by a group of advertisers. In this way, we introduce new advertisers to the magazine that we feel could have long-term f6tential.” In the last year alone, they’ve covered such topics as allergies, home renovations, luxury cars and physical fitness. The advertising department oversees the layout, design and editing, and they hire freelancers to write the copy.

Paul Partland, whose sole job at Maclean’s is to conceive, design and sell advertorials, says that he and his staff go out of their way to ensure that the readers won’t be confused. “We use a different type-style than in the magazine’s real editorial,” he says. “We also use a different format. We only use two columns, while the rest of the magazine uses three.” He also cites the disclaimer at the bottom of each page and ~ the fact that they are not listed on the ~ contents page. But he concedes that the ~ body copy separating paid ads is some~ times called “editorial” and paper used ~ for advertorial sections is the same ~ stock used in the rest of the magazine.

Canadian Business ran its first internally produced advertorial section under editor Wayne Gooding in the December 1989 issue. The advertising department wanted to attract more car advertisers and an advertorial section was the chosen means of accomplishing this. Gooding went along with this approach, despite some misgivings. Although he is not as adamantly opposed to advertorials as de Villiers, he nonetheless says he wants to be cautious and careful about them. While he is aware of the potential for confusion, he also recognizes the importance of advertising revenue. “You have to be realistic “about the world,” he says. “Editors only spend money-we don’t generate money. We depend on advertising to do that.”

Still, Gooding believes it is necessary to take all possible steps to minimize the confusion. Canadian Business has taken Partland’s measures one step further and has actually devised a set of guidelines to deal with advertorials. The guidelines call for a different typeface and column design, as well as a disclaimer. But they also state that the editor must be consulted to ensure that the advertorial topic is “suitable for inclusion in the magazine.”

But Gooding’s participation in creating the first advertorial was more extensive. Although the advertising department footed the bill and the pages didn’t come out of the editorial budget, Gooding and art director Anna Janes collaborated with the advertising department to ensure that the section was first-rate and distinct from the rest of the magazine.

Gooding himself hired Bob English, a freelance writer with a special interest in cars to write the copy. He also took on a freelance editor and an art director and gave them a free hand in creating the advertorial. After that, he didn’t see the product until the final stages, when he made a few more changes. He moved the disclaimer from the bottom of the page to the top, where it is more visible, while Janes recommended some alternatives to the illustration to make sure that it was different from any illustration style ever used in the magazine. He then placed the section at the back of the magazine, after the regular features, and ensured that the pages weren’t numbered.

But whether they run in the middle of the magazine or at the end, they are still part of the book, printed on the same stock as the other pages. Such subtle distinctions as a different typeface and a different number of columns might just go unnoticed by the untrained reader.

De Villiers cites these reasons for his stand against advertorials. The reader, he says, could easily mistake the sections for journalism, and hold the magazine responsible for turning out material that doesn’t meet the usual journalistic standards: “If your readers are drifting away because they no longer believe what you say, then they won’t buy the magazine. Advertorial is by its very nature counterfeit, because it’s trading on a currency in which it has no residing value. It’s trading on the trust that the editors have built up with their readers without subscribing to the kind of morality that has led up to that trust.”

Still, de Villiers is plagued with letters from potential advertisers who will advertise only amid favorable editorial. “There are always those expectations,” he says. “It’s quite common.” He responds to these expectations by writing the prospective advertisers “a very polite letter explaining that we keep the separation between advertising and editorial absolute in this magazine, and editorial decisions are made regardless of whether you advertise or not. We might write about you even if you don’t advertise. Similarly, we might or might not write about you if you do..” He thinks that in the long run, this benefits both the advertisers and the credibility of the magazine.

Unfortunately, advertisers are not so readily convinced. Partland finds it easy to attract advertisers to advertorial sections in Maclean’s because he guarantees them close proximity to favorable copy. “Advertisers often wake up at 3 a.m. wondering if anybody saw their ad on page 72 of Maclean’s,” he says. “But an advertising and information supplement creates an island of interest. If people are reading it, it’s because they have some interest in the topic. So that way the advertisers feel, ‘Hey, people will be more likely to read my ad, not only to see it and to notice it, but to actually read it because they’re in the frame of mind to absorb it.’ “

However, even this doesn’t guarantee that they will read the ad. As with anything else in the print media, the reader can ultimately decide not to read it and just turn the page. “It does give the advertisers a worry-free environment,” says Fulford, “but I’m afraid it would also be a reader-free environment. Most people I know are so busy that they only have time for that journalism which is compelling, attractive, entertaining and important to their lives-some combination of those qualities. Well, none of those qualities describes advertorial.”

Unlike straightforward journalism, in advertorial the interests of the reader are all but ignored. “In any editorial conference,” says Fulford, “no matter how highbrow or lowbrow or tasteful or sexist it may be, the reader is sitting there all the time at the editorial meeting. But in advertorial, it doesn’t come up. The reader is absent from the editorial table. The reader is the forgotten person.”

Even Partland and Ladkin agree. “They’re definitely more ad-driven than readership-driven,” says Ladkin. Partland explains that there are two criteria for choosing topics for advertorial sections. The first is, Do we think we can sell a lot of ads? The other is, Is it going to be of interest to the reader? which Partland admits is “a very distant second” in priority.

The attitude toward the reader is what separates editors from advertisers. Yet advertising people will argue that this difference is outweighed by a basic similarity: they are both in the business of selling a product. Advertisers pitch consumer goods, while editors produce a magazine that they hope will sell on the newsstand. For that reason, they g should cooperate and look after each other’s needs. De Villiers disagrees: “Our product is not the magazine, but the information contained in it. There is a different social purpose to that. If you start tampering with that in any fundamental way, you get into propaganda, and away from journalism. You start to lose your basis for any credible social discourse. And I think that is a much bigger problem than simply telling lies about Kleenex. Journalism is a different kind of product, because you’re trading in information that is essential to the functioning of society. I think that’s the point we have to keep throwing back at the people who want us to publish advertorials.”

Toronto Life is a successful magazine. It has managed to turn a profit and attract advertisers without resorting to advertorials. They’ve done this by employing what de Villiers calls a “preemptive approach.” He says, “You do it first. You do it before the advertisers make demands on you.” Like advertorials, the preemptive approach involves the use of supplements. During the course of a year, Toronto Life runs supplements on food, homes, cars, men’s fashion and Christmas gift ideas. Unlike advertorial section producers, de Villiers insists on bringing a journalistic sensibility to his supplements: “We give credible reviews of the new cars. We say this one works and this one doesn’t work and why we think so. This year, we’re not even reviewing cars. We’re doing a Drivers’ Survival Guide to the City. But it’s about cars, and people who drive cars will read it. So car advertisers will go into it because they know they’re going to reach their market. They don’t go into it because we write nice things about their product.”

Canadian Living is another magazine that has succeeded with the same preemptive approach. Publisher Robert Murray is also an outspoken opponent of advertorials. “I think advertorials are dangerous. They’re a form of prostitution. Our editorial is sacrosanct,” he says. But he doesn’t mind cooperating with his advertisers when he sees a direct benefit for his readers. Canadian Living runs two special sections a year, Kids for Summer and Kids for Winter, which help mothers deal with the pressures of having their children home from school for an extended period of time. “It tells mothers how to cope through the summer and winter weeks. The advertisers just jump right in on that because their stuff is right there. There are hot dogs and crayons and buns. It makes for a great combination, but it’s not an advertorial. It’s an editorial piece designed for the use of our readers that the advertisers are using.”

Cooperation between advertisers and editors is crucial to the survival of a magazine. “You can’t do a magazine unless it’s commercially profitable,” says de Villiers. “You can’t afford to. Good journalism is expensive. You have to pay good writers good money to do it. But unless the magazine is making money, you can’t. So that’s the trick-to try and do a successful magazine without compromising journalistic principles.”

The very nature of the business means that editors and advertising people are at cross-purposes. “There’s always a tension between the editorial and advertising departments,” says Wayne Gooding, “and that tension is that the ad people’s incomes depend on the number of pages they can sell. We understand where their priorities lie.”

De Villiers agrees: “There’s some tension built into that relationship. It has to be that way. On the other hand, I think that an editorial position that says that all sales people are whores is wrong. It’s totally counterproductive. We’re all on the same side.”

Bob Murray is one publisher who understands the importance of keeping everyone on the same side. “We go out and we pay top dollar for the most creative people we can find,” he says, “and we let them do their job. That’s what a publisher is all about.

“Yes, we look after advertising and circulation and production, but the product has got to come together before you can do anything with it. My responsibility is for getting and keeping a great creative team. I can’t crack the whip. It doesn’t work for hockey teams or baseball teams. Why would it work in a magazine?”

Unfortunately, Murray is not like most publishers. More typical are the people that Bob Fulford dealt with at Saturday Night, where the publisher and the editor had clearly separate responsibilities. Saturday Night did publish the occasional advertorial, but because of this division of duties between the two departments, Fulford felt there was nothing he could do about it.

“I did not ever see it as part of Saturday Night, although there it was, bound up in the magazine, ” he says. “It was the publisher’s responsibility. I had enough trouble worrying about my pages without worrying about his pages. If we were making a lot of money and I had exactly the staff I wanted and things were moving along, I guess then I’d start worrying about those things.”

After all is said and done, the bottom line is still the bottom line. Advertorials make money, so they’re here to stay. As Paul Partland says, “With all the extra money we bring in, maybe the magazine will be able to bring in a correspondent in Russia that we wouldn’t otherwise have had.” Gooding agrees: “It probably pays for stories we want to do.”

For Canadian Living, the addition of advertorials may have meant more space for editorial and less for advertising. Murray says that is a sacrifice he’s prepared to make for the integrity of the magazine. But Murray is the exception and not the rule. Most editors, like Fulford, find themselves in strained relationships with their publishers. In that case, says de Villiers, the fight against advertorials “may be a losing battle, but I still think it’s the proper approach.”

It is a battle that requires constant vigilance on the part of anti-advertorial crusaders. Toronto Life gave up the vigil and lost the battle when it printed an advertorial in its January 1990 issue. Though it wasn’t a full-blown advertorial section, it was a one-page ad about skiing in Quebec. The body copy was lined up like editorial, complete with a headline and photograph. There was a disclaimer across the top, and even a writer’s byline.

The lapse was not caused by a change of heart on the part of de Villiers, but rather by an oversight. In fact, de Villiers was not even aware of the advertorial until it was brought to his attention several weeks after publication. Since he doesn’t decide which ads will run in the magazine, de Villiers only looks at them in the final vandyke stage, the last stage before the magazine is sent to the printers. In this case, he says the film for the Quebec ad arrived late and was not ready at the vandyke stage.

If it had been ready, de Villiers says he wouldn’t have allowed it. “My view hasn’t changed. It won’t happen again, not deliberately anyway.”

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