When it comes to luring advertisers, sooner or later all roads lead to Detroit. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford spent about $3.6 billion on ads in the United States alone last year.
But when executives of Dennis Publishing went to seek automotive ads for Maxim, the British company’s new magazine for “regular guys,” they learned that the road would run two ways. Chrysler liked the prototype for Maxim and planned to buy a two-page ad for its Jeep Cherokee, but Dennis first had to agree to “certain requirements,” to quote the publisher’s president, Stephen Colvin. “They wanted to see anything that might be deemed offensive before we went to press.”
Although Maxim’s recently published premiere issue contains a frank discussion among six women about their sex lives, as well as a few photos of revealingly clad women, the magazine’s just-us-guys approach did not present a problem. The Jeep ad appears on Pages 4 and 5.
“We’re not going to change our editorial product, but we also want to be ‘in play,’ ” Maxim Publisher Lance Ford said. “And there are rules. You have to play by their rules. I don’t want to exclude ourselves.”
Maxim’s experience with Chrysler Corp. is but a recent example of how major advertisers have been scaling the once-secure wall between church and state--that is, the wall separating the editorial and business sides of publications. Advertisers are exerting influence on the editorial content that surrounds their ads, if only by putting editors on notice that plans to publish certain material might result in a loss of vital ad revenue.
Although editors and publishers concede that they have long recognized the sensitivities of one advertiser or another--Ms. magazine, for example, used to put certain ads two or three pages away from articles on abortion--a feeling has arisen among many editors that the concerns of advertisers have escalated into an assault on editorial integrity and independence.
This sense of alarm follows the examples of advertiser assertiveness contained in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on April 30. The newspaper reported that Ford yanked all ads for its Lincoln and Mercury autos from the New Yorker for six months in 1995 after the magazine had quoted sexually graphic song lyrics adjacent to a Mercury display. As a result, the journal reported, the New Yorker drew up a “sensitive advertiser list” naming 50 companies that were to be apprised of pieces that might offend them.
Perhaps the most striking detail in the journal’s piece was its description of a letter that Chrysler’s ad agency sent to more than 100 magazines last year. The letter requires the publications to alert the car maker “in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive.” The letter also obligates the magazines to submit “a written summary outlining major theme / articles” for issues in which Chrysler ads are to appear, “in order to give Chrysler ample time to review and reschedule if desired.”
The journal revisited a much-gossiped-about incident involving Esquire, describing how Publisher Valerie Salembier’s belief that the magazine would lose four pages of Chrysler ads scheduled for April had prompted the decision to ax from the same issue David Leavitt’s “The Term-Paper Artist.” The long story includes sexual encounters between men and contains a few four-letter words. (Edward Kosner, who was editor in chief, said at the time that he had pulled the story solely for reasons of taste.)
The journal’s expose was reviewed days later by the board of the American Society of Magazine Editors, an influential group that has more than 800 members from 360 publications and administers the annual National Magazine Awards. Led by ASME President Frank Lalli, the managing editor of Money, the board began to draft a statement addressing issues raised by the journal piece. The draft may be considered at its meeting later this month.
Years ago, ASME drew up guidelines on how magazines should distinguish special advertising sections, so-called advertorials, from regular editorial pages. In October, ASME released a three-paragraph “Standard for Editorial Independence” following a few episodes in which editors left magazines as a result of apparent interference from their corporate employers.
In one high-profile case a year ago, Premiere Editor in Chief Chris Connelly resigned when ordered by Hachette Filipacchi Magazines President David Pecker to kill a piece exploring Sylvester Stallone’s holdings in Planet Hollywood. The restaurant chain also counted business mogul Ron Perelman, then a co-owner of Premiere, among its investors.
The “Standard for Editorial Independence” says, “Editors need the maximum possible protection from untoward commercial or other extra-journalistic pressures. . . . The chief editor of any magazine must have final authority over the editorial content, words and pictures that appear in the publication.”
The statement also set up a process for investigating alleged violations of editorial independence, including the possible suspension of an “offending magazine” from the prestigious National Magazine Awards program.
These days, the chagrin among editors stems in large measure from the report that Chrysler has codified its demands in the form of a letter.
“I can describe the mood on the board as one of dismay,” said ASME board member Suzanne Braun Levine, a former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. “I’m not sure that a wide array of editors were aware that it had gotten this bad, that some editors had been dealing with this for a long time. I think a lot of editors have gone to their publishers and asked what they did with that [Chrysler] letter.”
Newspapers and television are no less financially immune to the irritation of advertisers. In 1989, Terry Rakolta, a Michigan homemaker angered by the sexual innuendo and the treatment of women depicted on the sitcom “Married . . . With Children,” persuaded Procter & Gamble and other leading advertisers not to buy time on the show. And in April, some advertisers pulled out of the “Ellen” coming-out episode.
When the ethics committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors interviewed 85 ad directors at major daily papers around the country, all but seven reported instances of ad cancellations during the previous five years by advertisers “unhappy with the news coverage” or editorial comment.
“With TV, it’s a case of supply and demand, and right now the demand for commercial time exceeds the supply,” said Kevin Goldman, a former advertising columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of “Conflicting Accounts” (Simon & Schuster), a recently published chronicle of the Saatchi & Saatchi agency’s ad-industry battles. “Magazines are different because there’s a finite number of advertisers that want in on a particular book. If Chrysler pulls out of an issue, the pool of advertisers that might take its place is shallow.”
What’s more, as magazines, and especially new magazines, increasingly tailor their editorial focus to reach niche audiences or a particular demographic, they also narrow their options for ad dollars to those marketers targeting the same groups--in effect, giving greater influence to fewer advertisers. As more magazines narrowly define their audiences, industry observers predict, more and more advertisers may step forward with editorial demands.
Helen Gurley Brown said that during her more than 30 years as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, she had to counter occasional reluctance among Detroit auto makers to advertise in the magazine because some executives “compared our readers to Las Vegas chorines. They thought Cosmo was too naughty for them.” Brown convinced them that there was nothing “gratuitously provocative” in the magazine’s often frank advice for young women.
Nevertheless, Brown added, she endured such concerns up to the minute Bonnie Fuller succeeded her as editor in chief, starting with the March issue. Brown said the representative of a Detroit-based car company (she declined to say which one) asked for and received a copy of the planned table of contents for her farewell issue, set for February, then threatened to pull a large schedule of ads unless the rep got to see one of the pieces, “How to Be Very Good in Bed.” Rather than jeopardize the account as she was leaving, Brown explained, “a senior editor and the client’s [ad] agency pulled out a few things from the piece, but enough was left.”
“The pressure over profit margins and making money is much stronger in the industry than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said Ellen Levine, editor in chief of Good Housekeeping. “And advertisers and readers have many more options than they did years ago.”
More magazines--933 in all--were launched in 1996 than in any other year, according to Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who publishes an annual guide to new publications.
If Chrysler appears to be playing hardball in this competitive media environment, the company resists the suggestion. Chrysler spokeswoman Terri Houtman said in a recent interview with Newsday that the company knew nothing about Esquire’s decision to drop Leavitt’s short story until the episode was reported by the media.
“We are very, very sensitive to the separation of church and state,” Houtman said. “We are not trying to influence editorial. The issue that we face is that there are times when we prefer not to be in a certain kind of editorial environment, though we prefer not to cancel advertising but to move it to another issue.”
Asked to describe the guidelines Chrysler expects magazine editors to honor, Houtman cited as problem areas: graphic descriptions of sex and of drinking and driving, as well as racial epithets. “Those are the kind of things we want a heads-up on,” she said. “In cases where we haven’t been notified, there are discussions that take place. We may put advertising on hold for a few months. The process seems to have worked for us.”
She added: “We’re in business to sell cars and trucks. We try to reach people in environments that are positive and upbeat.”
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Beter Homes and Gardens calls It ‘Consideration’
Chrysler Corp. has never asked Better Homes and Gardens to produce lineups of stories in issues that would carry the car maker’s ads, according to Publisher Alex Mironovich. A magazine about home and family apparently does not pose serious editorial concerns to the company.
But that’s not to say Better Homes, whose mammoth circulation of 7.6 million copies a month makes it the fifth-largest magazine in the country, publishes without considering advertisers’ scruples.
When Better Homes scheduled a piece on the dangers of second-hand smoke, the magazine notified cigarette makers in case they wanted to move their ads to another issue. One of them did.
“That’s just consideration,” said Editor in Chief Jean LemMon. “You don’t want to purposely slap advertisers in the face.”
When Better Homes is preparing to photograph an interior for a story, the magazine will use a fixture made by one of its advertisers whenever there’s a choice between two products of equal design and value. “But we would never design a story simply to showcase the goods of an advertiser,” LemMon added.
In effect, Better Homes gives editorial consideration to its advertisers while not allowing them to dictate editorial decisions. Editors understand the magazine is a business, but they never cross the line and violate editorial integrity, Mironovich said.