Turning A Blind Eye To Crossing The Line
It's happening in front of our eyes. Paid ad placements, inside the garden walls protecting traditional media values, are poisoning the grounds where Henry Luce and our publishing forefathers first drew "the line" separating church from state. Today's media-buying demand for a "big idea" required to earn a media commitment, combined with a softer and more competitive environment, all driven by a sales force that has no idea who Henry Luce is, have publishers doing things not done before.
The New York Times magazine recently selling its cover to an advertiser is a symbolic symptom of this self-inflicted disease. The shock wasn't the cover being sold, but rather, that a traditional magazine publisher veered onto tracks laid by dot-com publishers over this past decade.
Print publishers are guided by ASME guidelines designed to protect the integrity of their product and the interest of their readers so there is zero confusion between what is edit and what is advertising. Dot-com publishers are guided by their creative abilities to cross this line.
Case in point: UGO.com. This entertainment network of sites bought by Hearst a year ago is notoriously creative at blurring the line. In one example, they sold an ad campaign to the breakfast chain Denny's. A co-branded Leaderboard ran on the site with a visual of a grand slam breakfast covered with copy that reads "Movies: Part of a Balanced Breakfast." When you click on the ad, you land inside the site's editorial channel dedicated to "Film & TV" and a custom section reviewing the top movie breakfast scenes. There is no mention this section was driven by advertising. Check please line crossed.
Case in point; Yahoo.com. This portal knows no boundaries when it comes to promoting the interests of an advertiser at the expense of editorial integrity. The examples are many and the most blatant one I encountered came back when the movie "Me, You and Dupree" first opened. Highlighted on the home page that opening Friday was a "feature story" with a picture of Owen Wilson and a headline that read "How to Evict a Freeloader" followed by a subheadline that read, "A married couple is besieged by a real life Dupree." What are the chances of this news story breaking the same day a movie about a freeloader who won't leave opened? Pass the popcorn, hold the credibility, line abolished.
Case in point: Newsweek.com. This example can make the case maybe it's OK to blur the lines if the interests of the advertiser and the reader are met simultaneously. For the last nine months or so, a Rolex watch face has been affixed to the home page of this newsweekly's web site. The watch not only tells the user what time it is, but what if they wish to know what time it is in Denver or Dubai, they can click on an arrow and the watch face changes to the exact time in those time zones.
When I worked at Newsweek, there was no Newsweek.com and the editor was Maynard Parker -- a world-class person who wore traditional media values the way older men proudly wear after-shave cologne. If Maynard were alive today, I wonder what he would do if a salesperson sold Rolex a fixed position on the cover of his magazine.
My own firsthand experience crossing the line was at IGN.com. We cut a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal with a single retailer, to be featured on every page view the site generated, to give our readers the chance to order games online. It didn't matter that this retailer was notorious for being the last to stock the most popular games or did not offer the lowest prices. They wrote a check and we wrote off providing choices on where to buy games when on our site. Game over. (Note: IGN now provides a price comparison engine).
Online is famous for its ability to track and report the actions of its users, but what we can't track is the erosion of our credibilility. This happens over time and inside the collective minds of those we are meant to serve. Isn't it time buyers stop pretending requests for this kind of "creative" integration serve everyone's interests? Isn't it time we institute and uphold firm ASME guidelines for online publishers, and publicly punish those sites that ignore them? Isn't it time we take a look at what we are ignoring before we have nothing left to look at?