Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Folio looks at the ad-edit issue

A little more than a week ago, VNU pulled a series of inappropriate ads from the editorial section of its magazines after I pointed out that the practice violated our profession's ethics.
I was pleased that VNU made the right decision. And I applaud the company for doing something that can be very tough -- backing away from a bad move.

This month's issue of Folio magazine takes a look at the line between editorial and advertising, and uses my thoughts about VNU as a starting point. Take a look.

I read the Folio piece with a heavy heart. Because it reminded me that many people in B2B publishing seem to have a difficult time with the easiest of concepts -- be good. In particular, the Folio article quotes an unnamed publisher, referring to ethics and online publishing, as saying “It’s like the Wild West out there.”
That's nonsense.
More to the point, that's wishful thinking by people who are willing to cut ethical corners.

The Folio piece gives a detailed and thoughtful look at new forms of marketing material that are available on the Web, including "online advertorials, sponsored areas, micro-sites and vendor-generated content."
Those are all valuable forms of content. And each of them is perfectly appropriate on the Web site of a B2B publisher.
But there is nothing about those types of material -- NOTHING -- that exempts them from the rules of ethics. Or, as I've told B2B journalists a hundred times: the rules haven't changed online, and you shouldn't let them.

Consider if you will one of the most basic of our profession's ethical guidelines -- make it clear what's an ad and what's not. The American Society of Magazine Editors puts it this way: "If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled. A magazine’s name or logo should not be used in a way that suggests editorial endorsement of an advertiser." The American Society of Business Publication Editors has this to say: "Special ad sections and supplements should be clearly labeled with the word 'advertising,' 'advertisement,' 'sponsored by,' or similar designation. The words 'advertorial' or 'infomercial' confuse the readers about the nature of the material, and should be avoided."

Or to put it more simply -- if someone paid for something on your site, make that clear to the reader.
Don't call ads a "resource center." Don't call them "special services."
Be clear. Be honest. Be ethical. Be good.
Those are simple rules for all of business, and all of life.

And remember, no matter what anyone else says -- you work in journalism, not in the Wild West.

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  1. I know advertisers are manipulative and evil, but what is the problem with calling a "classifieds" page a "resource center?"

    Ideally, paid ads should be a resource for readers. After all, you think enough of these advertisers to allow them space in your magazine. They add value. They sway your audience. You don't see feminine-napkin ads in Maxim any more than you see a eunuch in a whorehouse.

    Call your ad collection a "Resource Center," "Special Services," "Companies Who Paid to Put Their Names in Front of Your Eyes" -- whatever. If readers have a problem separating editorial voice from that of your advertisers, your publication's problems likely go beyond sectional nomenclature.

  2. Anonymous,
    I don't believe advertisers are manipulative or evil. I do believe that in the quest to make money, people will sometimes cut corners.
    That's why we have ethics guidelines -- to help people make the right decisions under pressure.
    I also believe that there are people like you who miss the point ... because missing the point allows you to ignore the issue.
    The problem isn't whether or not an ad has value. Of course ads have value. Some more than others. But each and every one of them contributes to the overall product. The "value" of an ad has nothing at all to do with the issue.
    What we're talking about here is as clear as can be -- don't manipulate your readers.
    The intelliTXT links, for example, are clearly attempts to make an ad look like something else. Calling an ad a "resource center" is the same thing. Why not call it a "resource center sponsored by the XYZ Corp"?
    I don't care if the classifieds page is called the jobs resource center as long as it's clear that it's full of ads.
    What I do care about is someone creating a product that is designed to look like editorial material (a link in a story, a sidebar of "related material," a white paper that doesn't disclose the author, a list of "recommended" vendors that isn't recommended by anyone other than themselves, etc.) That's immoral. That's a lie. And that's a violation of the ethics guidelines of every association that represents us.
    I don't think I can be any more clear about this. The profession has agreed upon a set of ethics guidelines. It's simply childish to suggest that you don't have to conform because your ads are more "valuable" than someone else's.
    If you can't live by the rules, then please have your publication resign from ASME, ASBPE, ABM, TABPI, etc.

  3. Paul,

    What about the Big Business publication that sells and produces a private event, paid for by an advertiser about a topic such as, hmm, let's say, Innovation. The Senior Editor of the publication is the Interviewer and a sponsors client the Interviewee. All nice, and private and - well - orchestrated to help that advertiser look good in front of its hand selected audience, validated by the famous Sr Editor asking questions. Questionable, yes? But then the Sr Editor publishes a partial transcript of this interview as a print publication feature, surrounded by ads touting innovations from the same advertiser that sponsored the event, and the interview appears online, also surrounded by amazing - you guessed it - video and ads from the sponsoring company.

    My point? It's not just the small trade books or on-line publishers that are crossing the ethical line. And so long as edit is strapped for resources and publishers are desperate for differentiation, we will continue to see even the Big Boys work the edges of the field.

  4. Hi Anonymous,
    I'd probably feel a lot better about this if it were just the small fry that were causing problems. But you're right -- the Big Boys are working "the edges of the field." And they justify it to themselves and to others by saying that the Web is "the Wild West," and that online publishing has rewritten the rules, that things are different now, that "everyone does it" and that at least they are selling their souls for "valuable" ads.

  5. So Paul, your "resource center" comments were only directed at online mags? It wasn't clear in your post.

  6. Anonymous,
    My comments are aimed at anyone in B2B publishing -- whether they operate an online magazine, an electronic news service, a standalone Web site, etc.
    If your site makes a claim to professionalism. If your company belongs to any of the B2B, magazine , online or journalism trade associations, then you have an obligation to keep clear the line between edit and advertising.
    And let me say it again just to be as clear as possible:
    If someone paid for something on your site, make that clear to the reader. Don't call ads a "resource center." Don't call them "special services."

  7. What I don’t understand is that the rules set up by ASBPE and others regarding ethics are not too hard to follow. Yet they seem to be widely ignored, or at least they’re ignored when they prove to be inconvenient.

    And I don't really think it would affect advertising revenues that much. Just don’t let sales put any crazy ideas in their heads in the first place.

  8. The line between editorial and advertising may be clear to us, but all too often I run up against advertisers who don't make such a sharp distinction. Yes, they're often smaller companies, or ones that rely on their marketing staff to handle both press relations and advertising, but how many times are you approached with requests to "print my release"? It can be annoying since it tells you they don't really know what you do or how you serve your readership. I give them the benefit of the doubt and use it as an occasion to explain the difference between news and marketing, between editorial content and advertising. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don't want to hear, but I've made my point.