One-time editor of GQ, James Brown commented last week: “GQ leads the way in blurring the distinction between ads and editorial, and often you’re not sure which one is which.”
Even taking into account his ignominious exit in a click of jackboots from CondÃ© Nast, Brown’s point remains valid. Journalism and commerce have never before been closer.
Indeed, nowadays anyone bold enough to assert that magazines have a duty to retain a modicum of editorial independence from advertisers will invite nothing but eye-rolling accusations of naivety, idealism and suggestions they lighten up and get with the programme.
Advertisers provide a least half of the revenue of glossy magazines. In view of this, who can blame Armani or Prada for counting their editorial mentions and apportioning ad budgets accordingly. Why the hell should they fund titles which clearly don’t rate their stuff? Ads for credits are a long-established rule of the game. But it is one thing an editor being “advertiser friendly” and quite another he or she bending over backwards in the name of advertising.
There is an insidious trend for magazines to run features that are littlemore than lengthy puffs for a particular product and often appear to be linked to advertising deals. Take the October issue of GQ into which was inserted an enormous, lushA3-sizedmagazine promoting the department store Selfridges.
So was there any coincidence that in the same issue there was a four-page feature about “The world’s first shopping stadium…which will redefine how men think about shopping”, aka the new Superbrands menswear department at, erm, Selfridges? Editor Dylan Jones assures me that the ad was in no way tied in to the editorial. He argues that the Selfridges story was of legitimate interest to GQ readers who buy the magazine for its fashion and retail news. The unfortunate timing was a coincidence. An issue earlier and the Superbrands floor would not have been ready; an issue later and rival men’s mags might have scooped GQ .
So when is an advertorial not an advertorial? When it involves anything to do with a luxury super brand.
Take this week’s Sunday Times ‘ Style section which ran a story about Chanel’s ad for a new perfume involving Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann and £17 million worth of diamonds.
All the photographs were provided by Chanel, including one that revealed a generous logo shot. The feature struggled in its attempt to argue that this was “more of a cultural event than a commercial”. Maybe so. Perhaps in our celeb-obsessed, label-slut age this is exactly what we want. But can this really be described as journalism or is it just puff for the latest perfume? Or what about this month’s Elle in which Chanel couturier Karl Lagerfeld launches his high-street collection for H&M over five approving pages. This is continued with a personal endorsement from Lorraine Candy in her editor’s letter. Is this a legitimate fashion story about a world-famous icon or an unlabelled promotion? Where do you draw the line? Perhaps the question is more about how much editorial control is being ceded to the brand. In this case the H&M pictures were taken and styled by Elle. But elsewhere magazines are happy to run pictures taken for commercial purposes. For example, You magazine recently ran a shot of Laura Bailey taken from Jaeger’s latest campaign. In Red last year, a feature about Joely Richardson and her best buddy were illustrated by pictures from a Principles advert.
Because labels adopt celebrities as their spokes models they can offer up interviews to magazines in exchange for branding. GQ is happy to slap Arsenal’s Freddie Ljungberg on its cover in the Calvin Klein pants he is paid to endorse. Dylan Jones argues it is no different to, say, featuring Kate Winslet because she is promoting Finding Neverland. Nothing is pure; everyone’s selling something.
Dylan would be happy to run an interview with Tom Cruise in conjunction with, for example, a car manufacturer.
His notions of editorial integrity boil down to whether the brand is cool enough to grace the pages of GQ. If it’s Aston Martin then yes, but if it’s Ford Focus it’s no. He believes GQ man is sophisticated and media literate enough to unpick the commercial editorial nexus and work out what to believe or what to buy.
But there are editors who balk at turning their covers into poster sites. In their battle to retain independence they are faced with ad managers waving rival titles and shouting: “She’ll do it, so why won’t you?” One editor was offered an A-list Hollywood star on condition she wore her sponsor’s label. The editor replied she would shoot the star in various brands and use the cover which she believed worked best. The celebrity was subsequently withdrawn.
Yet some titles are prepared to relinquish however much autonomy it takes to win celebrity access. When Elle featured Mena Suvari, the face of LancÃ´me, she wore LancÃ´me makeup.
On the following page was a stilllife beauty slot: “We’re hungry for LancÃ´me’s candy-hued shades.”
Even defenders of the brand-celeb magazine interface argue for transparency; it must be made clear to the reader that a deal has been struck. Yet some magazines actively disguise advertiser-endorsed material as editorial.
The Sunday Times ‘ Style said its piece on the new Chanel ad was more a ‘cultural event’ than a commercial
Red ran a story called “The time of your life” in which it interviewed five women of various ages. Typical Red feature.
But only if you read the tiny credits do you realise that every item of clothing featured is by Chanel and the shoot took place at Chanel’s jasmine farmin Grasse.
Then there was Red’s “Help! Make over my make-up bag” where readers revealed their gunky mascaras and orange foundations and were advised to buy more suitable slap. That old beauty department before-and-after staple, except every single product recommended for three different readers by the Red experts, was by Chanel. No real surprise then that on the next page was the new Chanel Colour Studio in Harvey Nichols.
In both cases, the word “promotion” was nowhere to be seen. Was Red’s advertising manager pleased? Was Chanel delighted? Did Hachette save a wedge having editorial shoots paid for by an advertiser? Probably.
But what about the readers? If they can’t trust their magazine, the integrity of its advice and its independent voice, then why should they remain loyal? Is it any wonder that magazine buyers have never been more promiscuous? Before being pushed into compromising positions by their publishers or swooning star-struck about a dodgy deal with Chanel, editors should note what the PPA has to say in its booklet on advertising practice: “People who feel cheated are not receptive to advertising messages.”
Magazines that trade credibility and reader loyalty are as good as selling their family silver. Brands need magazines with readers who trust what they read, not those who are wary, jaded and cynical.
Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times. firstname.lastname@example.org. She is former editor of That’s Life and Real
Next week: Alison Hastings
by Janice Turner