When Is An Ad An Ad? Only Time Will Tell

Has the world turned upside down? What kind of bizarro alternate reality are we living in? Time magazine has put advertising on its cover, and half the population is wringing its hands. The other half is soiling its drawers.

“…what remains to be seen is, will Time and other news magazines (and sites) wear their journalism hat or their advertising hat when the day invariably comes there is negative news about a cover advertiser?” -- The Motley Fool

“You can go ahead and mark May 22, 2014, as the day magazine covers died.” – Media Bistro

This over a Verizon ad smaller than a matchstick, below the address label, where scarcely a human soul will ever notice it. One wonders what value it even offers the advertiser. One wonders something else, too:

Who cares?

Yes, true -- having broken a longstanding taboo, Time Inc. will no doubt in due course expand the ad hole, first to a page-width ribbon and eventually to….well, let’s say the next Time Person of the Year may well be the “Can you hear me now?” guy. And the move is a categorical violation of the American Society of Magazine Editors' proscription against cover advertising. As ASME CEO Sid Holt said recently, when Scholastic broke the same rule: “It’s unfortunate because it has the potential to tell readers and advertisers that editorial is for sale.”



Hahahahaha. Holt didn’t mean to say it this way, but he inadvertently confessed everything: In much of the magazine world, editorial has always been for sale -- just don’t tell the readers. They’d be upset if they knew. ASME’s injunction has really just been a matter of appearances.

It’s the same reason you seldom see a neon sign blinking “BROTHEL.”

But that’s not why the uproar is so unfathomable. Even as the industry expresses shock, shock at advertiser-supported publications selling advertising space to advertisers, magazines and newspapers are tripping over one another to actually, openly, shamelessly put editorial for sale.

They call it “native advertising” -- content that exactly resembles editorial and is surrounded by editorial but is created for or by an advertiser, usually with the most minimal disclosure. Ads disguised as stories -- the widespread and increasingly universal whoring of editorial independence to the highest bidder.

The mechanism is that the publications’ credibility -- and the readers’ trust -- transfers to the masquerading advertiser. It is scandalous and ruinous, yet regarded with a shrug throughout the media and ad industries, because -- after all -- we need the money.

And people’s knickers are in a wad about cover ads that are clearly ads? That’s what’s so crazy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ad revenue subsidizing the publication of independent editorial. That has been the business model for three centuries and it served us well. Audiences understand that advertisers advertising themselves is what picks up the tab for coverage of Boko Haram and the Kardashians. Maybe readers don’t like ads, but they understand the quid pro quo. ALL content is “sponsored content.”

What readers will despise is figuring out that publishers have been greedy participants in a conspiracy of deception. And when they do, nobody will sweat an ad on the cover of Time magazine. Because then the mechanism will go in reverse; the universal mistrust of advertisers will transfer to the publishers who have been helping disguise them. And all parties -- except the public -- will get what they deserve.

11 comments about "When Is An Ad An Ad? Only Time Will Tell".
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  1. Robert McEvily from MediaPost, May 27, 2014 at 11:08 a.m.

    "...well, let’s say the next Time Person of the Year may well be the “Can you hear me now?” guy." Made my day - and it's only 11am!

  2. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 27, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.

    See cover NY Times today. Harry Winston. Unless ol' Harry died or shot up a school in California, it seems like an ad directed at NY Times readers fretful over economic inequality and diamond mining in Soweto.

  3. Michael Kaplan from Blue Sky Creative, May 27, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

    There have been ads on the front page of the New York Times for 100 years. It's no big deal. And the 6-pt type on the address label of Time Magazine is a bit different than Time a full-page brokerage ad on its cover instead of editorial matter. But even that is fairly traditional in trade publications. No one is confused. No one panics. I'm much more upset by coverage of non-news (can you say Kardashian?) than by clearly marked ads.

  4. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, May 27, 2014 at 11:32 a.m.

    It is the advertiser who provides the paper for the subscriber. It is not to be disputed, that the publisher of a newspaper in this country, without a very exhaustive advertising support, would receive less reward for his labor than the humblest mechanic. – Alexander Hamilton

  5. Bobbi Simmons from Arlington Roe & Co., May 27, 2014 at 1:27 p.m.

    DISCLOSURE AND TRANSPARENCY IN NATIVE ADVERTISING AND SPONSORED CONTENT is the title of a soon to be published Ethical Standards Advisory from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). Native advertising has created an unconscionable blurring of the lines between editorial/news content and advertising/promotional messaging. This clearly violates the ethical standards of PRSA and the Society of Professional Journalists. As Mr. Garfield points out so colorfully, mistrust continues to grow exponentially and the public as well as professional communicators are damaged. How unfortunate.

    Bobbi Simmons, APR
    Member, PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

  6. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 27, 2014 at 2:17 p.m.

    You accept the hypothesis that the Native Advertising mechanism allows a reader's trust of the publisher to transfer to the brand. You then argue that it can work detrimentally, that it is distrust that gets transferred to the brand.

    But I doubt the initial hypothesis itself. As long as the sponsored content lives on a publishing site, as a reader I will assume 1) The brand is paying to tell a message biased in their favor, and 2) the publisher is helping them create that message in the publisher's voice so it is difficult to distinguish from editorial.

    Ultimately I don't trust that kind of content, but my distrust ends with the publisher. I don't think there is really a "transference of authority", either positive or negative, to the brand -- which is the main flaw of native advertising.

    For example, my opinion of the Church of Scientology changes not a whit when The Atlantic runs their native piece. If the content was excellent, then at best I would consider the CoS a benevolent patron of the Atlantic.

    It is quite different from when a brand/institution acts as the publisher themselves.

    Consider the Christian Science Monitor, for example. Also funded by a religion, it has nevertheless earned the public's trust.

    That is the difference between native advertising and branded content; the gulf is huge.

  7. Bobbi Simmons from Arlington Roe & Co., May 27, 2014 at 4:06 p.m.

    The problem is that consumers are not necessarily informed enough to recognize Native Advertising when it is carefully disguised to look like editorial content and not clearly delineated as paid advertising. That is the deceptive piece that is clear to us -- but not everyone. It can be especially hard to discern in social media and digital advertising. That's why we at BEPS feel compelled to begin a more robust educational campaign on the subject.

  8. Tom Cunniff from Tom Cunniff, May 27, 2014 at 5:16 p.m.

    A few anecdotes: 1) No offense meant, but I can't remember the last time I took note of what was on a TIME magazine cover. 2) I had no idea an ad ran there until I got an email from MediaPost saying so. 3) I would be plenty horrified about an ad running on the cover of a major magazine if "ad", "cover" and "major magazine" still meant what they did in 1980. But, none of those words has anywhere near the powerful meaning that they once did.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 28, 2014 at 6:34 a.m.

    I see this as another cry for help by a medium that is in deep trouble. For decades magazines in the general interest category, thrived on the old business model, which relied on advertising dollars for half of its income and all of its profits. Now, advertisers are looking increasingly to electronic media to reach their consumer targets with TV-style messages and are cutting back on print. Magazines need to develop new revenue streams, particularly via digital platforms and this means going beyond just offering online subscriptions to their editions. Sure, you can sell ads on your front covers to agencies looking to get an extra perk for their clients, but once the novelty wears off, what then? Is this a long term fix? I doubt it.

  10. Rafael Cosentino from Telanya, May 28, 2014 at 10:19 a.m.

    If the disclosure on an ad unit is so innocuous, so invisible that it cannot be recognized as a paid ad then the provider is guilty of outright deception whether the ad is "native", inside the content, on the right rail, in the shape of a banner or even an outright advertorial. If you don't label ads and ad units and try to hide the fact that they are paid, its dishonest period. “Native" has nothing to do with an ad provider electing not to disclose. If it’s paid, mark it as such. The placement of the ad from the right rail to other parts on the page changes nothing.

  11. Andy Kowl from ePublishing, May 29, 2014 at 2:25 p.m.

    Bob, you wrote: "In much of the magazine world, editorial has always been for sale -- just don’t tell the readers."

    How much did you charge? Do you still?

    Shame on you for slandering the hundreds of editors and publishers I've known and worked with. Are there exceptions to every rule? Obviously and you saying you and those you know sold editorial prove that. Glad I've barely met one of them.

    Your opinion about native advertising at least has a basis of fact in the few cases it is not flagged as paid content. But by saying most of us have been whores, fraudulently deceiving the public all along makes your opinion unqualified, your Ad Age bkgrd notwithstanding.

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