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“Family Fashions for Spring!” reads a bold headline in the April 2005 issue of Homemakers. The page’s layout is similar to countless others in consumer magazines: visuals with captions, columns, and service-oriented blurbs about the latest in fashion trends. But there’s a crucial difference – the story wasn’t put together by Homemakers, but Levi Strauss and Wal-Mart.

An advertorial is a text-heavy advertisement with a service journalism orientation – advertising a health-care-related product alongside advice on living a healthy lifestyle, for example. Although advertorials are intended to look like editorial layouts – copy, heads and decks, columns, visuals – they should be in a different typeface, with different design elements, and clearly marked as advertising.

Advertorials are usually supplied by advertisers, but now in-house creative teams of artists and writers at companies like Transcontinental Media and Rogers Publishing are working with company brand managers to refine advertising messages. “We prefer an advertorial to be designed to reflect the look of the book, so that the reader is more comfortable with it,” says T.J. Flynn, Transcontinental senior vice-president of advertising sales. “But it’s still recognized as a piece of advertorial and not editorial.”

Canadian magazine advertising revenues are reaching record high numbers, so it’s not surprising that the relationship between advertisers and publications has shifted. A Statistics Canada report shows that in 2003 advertising revenues soared to $610 million, representing eight years of solid growth. In 2004, this trend continued, says Gary Garland, president of Magazines Canada. In addition to larger revenues for magazine publishers, when advertorials are done properly, he says, “They can be a wonderful service and of interest to readers.”

At Chatelaine, advertorials must be distinguished from editorial content through “clear placement of advertiser logos, clearly different fonts and design, and/or a clear ‘advertisement’ slug,” says Kerry Mitchell, Chatelaine‘s publisher. “It is the publisher’s decision whether that criteria has been met.”

Advertisers recognize that successful magazines develop a relationship with readers and want to leverage it to their benefit. “It’s supposed to be a win-win situation,” says Bill Shields, Masthead‘s editor-in-chief. A magazine earns revenue and an advertiser attracts readers to its message.

But magazines, like journalists, are only as good as their integrity. When a company demands that its product be featured in a page that mimics the magazine’s design, it threatens a magazine’s integrity – a no-win situation. To appease editors who feel that advertising is encroaching on editorial space, the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) created a set of guidelines in the late 1990s. According to CSME, “The integrity and long-term viability of magazines depends on a clear distinction between editorial and advertising, or both lose credibility. Eventually, so too will the magazine.” The organization took its cue from the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME).

Both ASME and CSME identified a number of specifics, including: publications should identify advertising that contains text or design elements similar to the editorial’s appearance; an ad’s layout, design, and typeface should not deliberately mimic the publication’s design; advertising pages shouldn’t be placed adjacent to editorial material in a manner that implies that the advertiser has influenced content; and editorial teams shouldn’t be required to prepare advertising sections. Unfortunately, CSME guidelines are too general to address recent issues, like what happens in the case of shopping magazines and custom publications that promote advertisers’ products in its editorial pages?

In September 2004, 61 U.S. journalism and law professors sent a letter to ASME asking the organization to “safeguard the integrity of magazines.” The letter was written and organized by Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization that opposes any selling, real or perceived, of editorial content. The professors argued that allowing advertising to weave its way into editorial content is a fundamental threat to press freedom and the integrity of journalism: “If magazines become mere tout sheets for products and the interests of those who sell them, then every story will be suspect, and the reading public may have nowhere to turn for information that is truly independent of reigning commercial interests.”

The letter suggested the following provisions: publications should disclose if it receives money or goods from an advertiser mentioned in an article and the words “advertising” or “advertisement” should be at least 1.5 times the size and weight of the publication’s normal type. The letter also suggested ways to enforce these provisions: any magazine that violates ASME editorial guidelines should be ineligible to receive National Magazine Awards for at least five years.

This threat can be enforced, since ASME resides over the National Magazine Awards. Currently, if a magazine violates the guidelines, the magazine can be declared ineligible for awards or kicked out of the society. “It’s a pretty strong incentive for reputable magazines to try and follow the guidelines because [the National Magazine Awards] are coveted,” says Doug Bennet, one of CSME’s founding members andMasthead‘s publisher. As for CSME’s enforcement, it has no teeth – only moral suasion. And there are no plans to partner with Canada’s National Magazine Awards.

If advertorials aren’t done properly they can jeopardize the bond of trust a magazine holds with its readers, says Magazines Canada’s Garland, especially if readers start to suspect the magazine speaks on behalf of advertisers. “It’s all in doing it right and walking that fine line.”

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About the author

Anna-Christina Di Liberto was the Head of Research for the Spring 2005 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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