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Reading Between the Blurred Lines

September 04, 1997|DENISE GELLENE

Imagine a smiling young model in low-cut jeans and a trendy scoop-neck blouse, surrounded by such splashy teasers for articles as "Get Buff Now." Sounds like the cover of YM, a magazine for teenage girls.

Not exactly. It's the cover of BP Style, a magazine from Nordstrom Inc. promoting its Brass Plum junior clothing department.

BP Style resembles YM in many ways. Besides a similar layout and typefaces, BP Style has features about guys, fashion and celebrities that regularly appear in YM.

A coincidence? Hardly. BP Style was created for Nordstrom by Gruner & Jahr USA, the New York-based publisher of YM.

BP Style represents a twist in the custom-publishing business. Publishers have long produced made-to-order magazines for airlines and other clients. Now they are turning out custom-ordered promotional pieces that resemble newsstand magazines--potentially an effective tool for advertisers, but possibly confusing for readers.

Behind the development are two important trends. Publishers competing for limited advertising dollars are looking for new ways to squeeze revenue from their magazines. Marketers struggling to break through the clutter of advertising want new ways to deliver their messages.

The formats vary. Some are clones of newsstand publications, others use content from consumer magazines that complement advertiser messages but have a different look.

Thus, visitors to Key Corp. bank branches in the Midwest can pick up Your Real Success, a free magazine packed with articles from Money and Fortune--plus pitches for the bank's investment services. Target Stores patrons get Target the Family, a glossy handout that carries the imprint of Parents magazine. BP Style, stuffed with fashion spreads featuring clothes from Nordstrom, went to 400,000 people in California and five Western states--many of them culled from YM's subscription lists.

There are signs that the publications are producing results. Nordstrom credits BP Style with boosting junior clothing sales when the publication came out last spring. Gruner & Jahr continues to benefit from additional advertising that Nordstrom agreed to place in YM as part of the BP Style deal.

Everyone wins, except perhaps some consumers.

"These publications blur the line between advertising and content," said Sandy Padwe, an associate dean at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "It is confusing to the consumer of news."

The degree of confusion probably depends on similarities between the custom publication and the magazine itself.

Readers can be forgiven for mistaking BP Style for YM. A letter inside BP Style from the editor of YM called it a "special edition" of YM. The BP Style cover sported the YM logo. The magazine contained popular YM features like, "Say Anything," in which readers recount embarrassing experiences.

Such similarities allow readers to sample YM, said Gruner & Jahr USA President John Heins. BP Style, in fact, contains subscription cards for YM.

Heins said there are enough differences between the publications that readers should not be confused. He points out that the cover of BP Style clearly states it is from Nordstrom. "It is the YM style, but it is not YM," he said.

Not every custom magazine is a twin like BP Style. Target the Family, also from Gruner & Jahr, contains original features and has a look different from Parents magazine.

Time Inc. uses material from its newsstand magazines to create publications for custom clients, but it won't duplicate the appearance of Time, Money, People or its other magazines. Editors from the magazines sign off on how material is used in custom publications.

A recent publication for Key Corp. contained advice on auto rentals that first appeared in Fortune and a Money article about career coaches--in addition to slick pitches for the bank's services. The logos of Time Inc.'s best-known magazines appear on the contents page of custom publications.

Such publications benefit marketers by allowing them to tap into the credibility newsstand magazines have established with readers--an advantage when so many promotional circulars end up in the trash.

Key Corp., for instance, used the magazines to replace poorly read bank brochures about loan programs and investment offerings. Bank customers are snapping up the magazines, introduced in branches last year.

"We wanted to create something of value that people would view as objective advice--with a marketing pitch," said Steve Cone, Key Corp. marketing vice president. "People think it might be an interesting publication, not bank hype."

"A Money logo next to a story provides instant credibility," said Tim Hildebrand, president of Time Inc.'s custom publishing unit. Key Corp. and other clients can "leverage the brand equity Money carries with it."

At the same time, though, there are risks to publishers in attaching the name of a respected publication a promotional flier.

"It is damaging to the imprint of the magazine," asserts Columbia University's Padwe.

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