Trying to Con the Reader—Then and Now

By Jack Limpert

The New York Times Co. and Hearst Magazines are among the latest publishers to introduce advertising presented as editorial content in their mobile and digital spaces. Native advertising is advertising that resembles an article in its host publication but is actually provided by an advertiser or outside company. —Poynter, May 29, 2013

For those of us who edited magazines 25 years ago, native advertising sounds a lot like what we then called advertorials. Those were sections in a magazine—often 12 or 16 pages—that were a mix of what sort of looked like normal editorial plus ads related to the subject matter. Back then the Washington Post Magazine ran lots of advertorials on cosmetic surgery (the magazine’s editor at the time was a  talented journalist who has gone on to bigger things), and the quasi-editorial copy could be anything from helpful information to puffery about an advertiser. A half-dozen of the bigger city and regional magazines—and some national magazines— would run six or seven advertorial sections a month.

The American Society of Magazine Editors tried to police the advertorial sections—here are the ASME Guidelines–and some magazines pushed things close to or over the line by making it hard for readers to know what was real editorial and what was advertorial. At ASME board meetings there was talk about whether magazine X or Y should be barred from the National Magazine Awards because the advertorials weren’t clearly labeled or looked too much like real editorial. I took part in an ASME panel on advertorials and tried to make the case that the sections were the equivalent of Pablum, that most of the sections offered nothing useful or interesting to the reader, that they were there only as a bland excuse to sell ads.

At one ASME meeting, Ed Kosner, then the editor of New York magazine, suggested that advertorial sections were okay if the quasi-editorial material was objective (facts and figures) and not subjective (puffery about those running ads). That made a lot of sense then, and still does. One problem, of course, is what marketers see as objective may not be what editors see as objective.

At The Washingtonian we mostly avoided advertorials because we had a strong circulation base and we didn’t want to endanger that by junking up the magazine. There was another issue: At a meeting of city magazine editors, Brian Anderson, then the editor of Mpls. St. Paul magazine, called advertorial sections the dangerous equivalent of heroin. His magazine was running lots of advertorial sections and he said that the magazine’s ad staff had become addicted to the sections, that they claimed they couldn’t sell run-of-book ads, that they needed the crutch of telling the advertiser that their ad would run near copy that would mention them.

So it appeared back then that advertorials might give a short-term boost to ad sales but long-term would weaken the magazine—it was an argument that some business side people understood. As for the editorial side, we hated advertorials, thinking that they were an attempt to con readers, that they would erode reader trust in the magazine, that they were an insult to the intelligence of readers, that long-term they would wreck the magazine.

Back then long-term thinking seemed to make sense.

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