This is [NOT] an advertisement

By Sean Fitzgerald

In November 2006, British women’s magazine Prima ran a two-page spread on the fitness benefits of the Nintendo Wii. Photos of smiling family members hovered over paragraphs of text. The spread looked like an article, with decks, dropcaps and cutlines. The word “advertisement” was missing, but the top left corner contained a clue: “Prima promotion.”

Welcome to the advertorial.

This style of advertising has been around for a while – the word “advertorial” first appears in Webster’s Dictionary in 1961 – and many magazines see them as a “growing function of their business,” says Kirby Miller, vice-president of sales and operations at House and Home Media. Miller helps advertisers develop their messages to fit the look of Canadian House and Home.

“Advertorials have to add value to the magazine and provide new information to the reader,” he continues. “We want to make sure that we’re not duplicating something that exists in the editorial.”

He explains that many advertorials work like service pieces – in addition to selling a product, they give readers how-to advice on everything from house-cleaning tips to brushing their teeth. His magazine monitors reader feedback carefully. In his eight years at the magazine, he says he’s never received a letter from a reader frustrated with advertorials.

Patrick Walsh, editor of Outdoor Canada, emphasizes that readers look to magazines for advertising messages as well as editorial content.
“And the reader’s fine with that, except when you start to blur the lines,” he says. “They’re reading editorial for the straight goods, and once you lose that, readers will migrate away. Then you have nothing to sell to advertisers, because they want to reach the eyeballs.”

Walsh chaired a task force that updated a set of 1996 guidelines – a collection of rules that describe differences between editorial and advertising – for the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME). After a year of research, the new guidelines were released in November 2006. The goal of these guidelines is to create a standard for the crucial distinction between advertising and editorial. They function more as ethical suggestions than rules, says Walsh, and the only penalty for not complying is “smelling bad at the next cocktail party.”

photograph by Avril Sequeira

Penny Caldwell, editor of Cottage Life, was another member of the task force. An advertorial is done well, she believes, when the magazine separates editorial and advertising in a clear way.

“You shouldn’t set the copy in the same typeface, or with the same design parameters as the magazine,” she says.

Readers of trade publications can find advertorials very useful, says Joe Terrett, editor of Plant, a magazine with the tagline “Canada’s industry newspaper.”

“The advertorial is a way to give detailed information that you wouldn’t get in a regular advertisement,” he says. “In trade magazines, readers are looking for technical detail.”

Lorraine Hoefler, advertising director at Maclean’s, says she’s received positive feedback about the magazine’s preventative health advertising supplement. She explains that the advertising department at Maclean’s must use a different font – one that differs from the magazine’s articles – for advertorials. Even though the ad must be distinguished, she says that readers also don’t want something that looks completely different from the look of the magazine.

“It might be an eyesore,” she says. “Like, ‘what is this doing here?’ It has to blend in somewhat with the magazine.”

She says the last thing she wants to do is trick the readers of Maclean’s. This results in a lose-lose situation for the magazine and for advertisers.

“If you piss readers off, you’ll keep them from buying the magazine,” she says.

Steven Balaban, the art director of Chart, places a strong emphasis on editorial integrity: “Readers are intelligent. It’s better to do something smart, than to try to fool them.”

Balaban has worked on designs for advertisers on company time. This in-house process becomes complicated in smaller publications that don’t have the multiple departments of bigger publications.

“It’s a tricky area,” Caldwell says. “Ideally, you wouldn’t have your staff writers working on advertorials. As editors, when we assign stories, part of the job is to get the writer to talk to a variety of sources so there’s a range of opinion. That’s not something that you can get with advertorials, because they come from a single source.”

At Maclean’s, Hoefler says the advertising and editorial departments don’t bleed into one another. But she does mention the increasing pressure from advertisers to find new ways to get their messages to readers.

“We’re getting pushed to blur the line,” she says. “It’s a balancing act to keep both readers and advertisers happy. But you’ve got to maintain the purity of the editorial product.”

Terrett doesn’t think the future of journalism is at stake. As long as the reader knows it’s an advertisement, he says, there shouldn’t be any problems.

“There are all kinds of TV ads that you find annoying,” he says, “but you don’t think the world of TV is at stake because that Oliver Jewelry guy is wearing a Santa Claus hat. I just ignore those kinds of ads. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.” MW