« Watch Out for Big-Sounding Percentages | Home | Recently Tweeted »

The Ethics of Digital Magazine Advertising

Posted on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 2:08 PM

Should the digital revolution bring a reassessment of the ad/edit divide?

By Meredith L. Dias

Advertising and editorial. Historically, the two have gone together like, to quote a dear friend, "bologna and whipped cream." The advertising department builds relationships with sponsors while the editors focus on the content. And never the twain shall meet.

Until now.

Digital Advertising Innovations

Digital publishing platforms have presented publishers with new and constantly evolving ways to connect readers and advertisers. Ads can be dynamic. They can be disruptive. They can be interactive. They can be annoying. The available technology can be dizzying, enough to disorient even the most ethical publishers -- and, sometimes, send them reeling into morally ambiguous territory.

Don't think it can't happen. It already has.

The Rules of Engagement

In April 2009, ASME responded to the digital publishing boom by publishing its "Best Practices for Digital Media." The list of standards is fairly short, and the overriding message is clear: ASME applies the same ethical standards to digital as it does print. The second item reads, "All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled."

There are other items, all of which foster advertorial transparency, "so users can see that the content is credible and free of commercial influence." In the name of privacy, ASME also requires that publications offer readers the option of opting out of information collection.

Ethical Issues

The publishing crisis has led some print publishers to drink from poisoned wells. Over the last several years, readers of several major magazines have seen an invasion of advertising in their editorial content -- and not just inside the magazine. A few publishers have openly challenged ASME guidelines by featuring controversial advertising on their covers. In 2007, XXL's editor-in-chief appeared in an ad on the back cover of his magazine. The cover of ESPN's April 6, 2009, issue was half-editorial, half-advertorial.

Digital provides even more opportunities to mesh advertising with editorial. Ads can flash across an editorial page. Content can be hotlinked to sponsor sites. In a magazine, delineation between ad and editorial is generally clear-cut (though, in recent years, some print magazines have experimented with product placement and ad overlap in editorial content).

However, says Susan Currie Sivek of MediaShift, publishers need to keep their readers in mind. When advertising takes the form of "online games, advertiser participation in Web discussion forums, sponsored tweets and Facebook posts, and ads in mobile applications and the iPhone editions of their publications," it is possible that "readers' experience with these new advertising approaches may not have caught up just yet to the magazines' innovations." In other words, readers may not readily discern between sponsored and editorial content. To complicate matters, says Sivek, "clear standards for distinguishing between ad and editorial haven't yet been established for digital magazines."

The Debate

Most editors wish to safeguard their content from undue advertorial influence. After all, breaches in the ad/edit divide infringe upon their autonomy and compromise their credibility. In an April 2, 2010, article for AdvertisingAge.com, ASME chief executive Sid Holt says, "'I think most editors would agree that these kinds of ads -- ads that intentionally disrupt the reader experience -- are not very good for the reader's relationship with the magazine, and since the editor is responsible for that relationship, the editor should have some say -- a lot of say -- the final say -- about whether the magazine should take ads like these."

Not so fast, say some other industry professionals. Emerging from the recent publishing and economic crises, many magazines are pursuing unconventional modes of advertising to recoup some of their losses. Sometimes, this means enhancing content with advertorial elements. This is, under current industry guidelines, unethical. It breaches that cherished ad/edit divide and can mean expulsion from ASME and its National Magazine Awards.

"Arguably," says Susan Currie Sivek, "if readers find value in the entertainment or information offered by these interactive ads, and the ads have been clearly designated as such then the magazine experience might in fact be enhanced by ads." But this new digital advertising environment offers "unscrupulous publishers a chance to lead trusting readers to unlabeled sponsor links by way of editorial content." Therein lies the problem. Practices like this violate ASME's best digital practices, but as a November 2008 Advertising Age headline suggests, "as ASME fortifies [the] ad/edit divide, some mags flout it."

Protecting Editorial Integrity

So how should editors respond when the advertising department invades? Should ASME reconsider its digital guidelines in response to recent developments in digital publishing technology? And can true advertorial transparency exist in the digital world, where advertising content can take countless forms, some of which are not readily discernible to readers?

There are compelling arguments on both sides. Some argue that the decriminalization of ad/edit overlap could mean higher wages and more job security for editors, whose industry has been in a state of constant upheaval for several years now. But are the job security and potential windfall worth it? No, say other industry insiders, who suggest that compromises in editorial integrity could actually damage the magazine's pull with the very advertisers who sustain them.

It comes down to this: If you are willing to take a bite of a bologna and whipped cream sandwich for a quick buck, be prepared for the ensuing stomachache. Even if industry evolution transforms advertising and editorial into peanut-butter-and-jelly partners, the taste will, for many, always be a bit off.

Meredith Dias is senior research editor of STRAT and Editors Only.

Add your comment.

« Watch Out for Big-Sounding Percentages | Top | Recently Tweeted »