Alternative Magazine to Try Vox Populi Approach to Setting Ad Policy

Perhaps you subscribe to Time or Newsweek. Or maybe magazines such as Turkey World or Furniture Forum find their way into your mailbox. Suppose--whatever magazine you might receive--the publication asked you what types of advertising you found acceptable?

And what if the magazine also asked you which advertisers you liked--and didn't like?

Well, you've probably never received such an inquiry. After all, the way most magazines best serve readers is to correctly gauge which articles readers want to see--and certainly not which advertisements. Right?

Wrong. At least, that's what Eric Utne thinks. And Utne soon plans to pose these questions directly to some of his readers.

Utne is editor and publisher of a magazine called Utne Reader. The Minneapolis-based bimonthly may best be described as sort of a Readers Digest of the alternative press. It reprints articles from such magazines as New Age Journal and Greenpeace. A recent issue included a cover story on "The Sexual Politics of Housework."

The 6-year-old publication has attracted a loyal readership among baby boomers, and its circulation recently topped the 200,000 mark.

But success has not always been easy for Utne Reader. Five years ago, most of the ads in the magazine were for things like New Wave music and natural vitamins. But its most recent issue included ads for Olympus cameras and Time-Life Books.

The question is: Are loyal readers of Utne Reader ready for the likes of American Express, AT&T; and Toyota? These are advertisers Eric Utne says his magazine would like to pursue from its newly opened New York sales office. Before it does, however, Utne plans to randomly poll at least 1,000 readers for their opinions on advertising.

"I know this is unprecedented," said Utne. "It's also dangerous," he added. "You don't want to make advertisers worry that you might reject them. But our most important relationship isn't with advertisers, it's with our readers."

Certainly, Utne is not the first to grapple with the problem of how to keep readers and advertisers happy. Earlier this month, Ms. magazine dealt directly with the issue by eliminating advertising altogether. And magazines like New Yorker and Good Housekeeping have long been known for their strict advertising guidelines. But advertising executives generally say they're not familiar with any magazine directly polling readers about ad policy.

"I think it's a good idea for magazines to find out as much as possible about their readers," said Donald Kummerfeld, president of Magazine Publishers of America. "The problem is, what if there's a split vote among readers. Then what do they do?"

A magazine with one of the strictest advertising policies is Modern Maturity. The magazine, one of the most widely circulated in the world, refuses all ads that depict aging in a negative light. "We know that advertising is just as important as editorial in shaping the overall feel and cadence of the magazine," said Robert E. Wood, publishing director. "It's always a good idea to let readers know you care about their opinions."

But not everyone thinks asking readers about ads is appropriate.

"A successful magazine should know what its readers want without asking them," said Samir Husni, publisher of the Guide to New Magazines published by the University of Mississippi. "I doubt if their readers really care if they carry mainstream or alternative ads."

"I've never heard of that in my life," said Dana Fields, associate publisher of Rolling Stone. "I give readers credit for knowing that ads and editorial are two different things."

Utne disagrees. "Some people might say we're anti-business, but that's not the case at all. I have no problems carrying ads. We just want them to be a good fit with our editorial."

Take Exxon, for example. "If Exxon wanted to run an advertisement that said they were sorry, and that pointed out all the new steps they were taking to improve the environment, I think we'd consider it. But if they wanted to simply run an ad that said they're Mother Nature's best friend, well, there's no way would we take that."

The poll, which Utne Reader hopes to do with the assistance of a major pollster, is scheduled to be taken next month. The magazine hasn't yet decided what it will do with the results. But there may be one thing Utne Reader probably shouldn't do with them.

"It might be dangerous to publish the results," said Kummerfeld. "The last thing any magazine wants to do is split its readership."

L.A. Ad Agency to Leave Sidewalks of New York

If you think it's tough for a new agency to make it in the Los Angeles market, try Manhattan on for size.

The Los Angeles agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, which opened a New York office less than two years ago, has decided to close its doors there. It is negotiating to sell that office to the ad firm Della Femina, McNamee WCRS--as well as talking with other agencies.

But all is not lost. The agency's biggest New York client, the $10-million Bridgestone Corp. tire account, will now be handled out of the Los Angeles office along with the state Department of Health Services' $28.6-million anti-smoking account. Said Leonard Pearlstein, president of the agency: "It's just a decision to refocus on our Los Angeles office."

Ketchum Plans to Tackle HMO Image Problems

Perhaps the biggest problems faced by health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, are the unclear--and often negative--images many people have of them.

So after winning the estimated $3-million to $5-million advertising account last week for Woodland Hills-based Health Net, the Ketchum/Los Angeles agency said it hopes that it can help improve the image of HMOs through advertising.

"Most people don't understand what HMOs are," said Richard Groff, vice president of strategic planning at Ketchum. "We hope to not only clarify what the HMO industry does, but Health Net's position in it."

The Promising Descendants of Hal Riney & Partners

Just as Chiat/Day/Mojo is often credited with breeding some of the Los Angeles area's up-and-coming small ad agencies, Hal Riney & Partners is quickly developing the same reputation in San Francisco.

Last week, a group of four executives split from Riney to form the San Francisco agency Atlas Citron Haligman & Bedecarre. In recent years, several other San Francisco hot shops formed after splitting off from Riney, including Mandelbaum Mooney Ashley two years ago, and prior to that, Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein.

"Where do you go after working for the smartest person in the advertising business?" posed Jeff Atlas, 33-year-old chairman of the new agency. "How do you find a higher standard than the best? Well, we felt the biggest challenge would be to open our own place."

Three of the four partners formerly worked together at the New York office of Ogilvy & Mather. Although the agency currently has no clients--and said it will take none away from Riney--it is expected to eventually try to lure away some Ogilvy clients.

Why open an agency when the advertising industry is in a slowdown? "Most of the ads you see on the air are bad, so there's always room for improvement," said Atlas, who wrote the American Express "Do You Know Me" commercials featuring Tom Landry and Stephen King. "Besides, you get to a point where you want to control your own destiny."

Postal Price Hikes Are Music to Ears of Private Industry

Every time the U.S. Postal Service raises its rates, it comes one step closer to losing two of its best customers: direct mail advertisers and magazine publishers.

The latest boost would add about three cents to the cost of mailing a weekly magazine such as Time, and more than seven cents to mailing larger monthly publications such as Vogue.

"By the mid-1990s, a substantial portion of magazines in large urban areas will be sent by alternative delivery," said Donald Kummerfeld, president of Magazine Publishers of America.

Meanwhile, the Direct Marketing Assn. said its 3,500 members are also seeking alternative forms of delivery. In growing numbers, private companies are being hired to deliver magazines or product information door to door. Said Kummerfeld: "The Postal Service is pricing itself out of our reach."

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