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Whose Copy Is It, Anyway?

Magazines: In a world more competitive than ever for advertisers' dollars, corporations are finding they can exert some influence on editorial product.

June 05, 1997|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

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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.

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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.

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