Have the ad/editorial rules changed completely?

In Business Class, Connecting to Communicate, uhm on January 6, 2010 at 11:20 am

Back in my journalism days (some time after Mencken and before blogs), the proper relationship between editorial placement and ad placement was clear: Ads should not run next to or across the page from editorial about the advertiser.

Interestingly, both advertisers and editorial types generally agreed on this rule, albeit for different reasons.

Editors feared that an ad positioned near related editorial content could give the impression that the content was bought and paid for via the ad. With the credibility of the story and the publication on the line, the editor wanted the ad to be as far as possible from related editorial content.

Savvy advertisers (and their agencies and account reps) often agreed with the editors’ perspective, knowing that perceived editorial credibility would reflect directly on the advertiser. “So, you’re the kind of company that buys ads to get good editorial, eh? Hmmm …” If it looked as though you “bought” the editorial, after all, how can we trust that the story is accurate and objective?

But there was also another, more practical motive: an eggs-in-basket sort of premise. If the ad is right next to the story, and someone happens to miss the story or skip that page entirely, then, in one fell swoop, you’ve lost all of your opportunities to tell your story. This was the point that most often seemed to elude advertisers. Usually, if there were an advocate for putting editorial and ads next to each other, it came from the advertiser (or, more specifically, someone in the executive suite), who seemed to think a “concentration of message” would make the most impact.

Lately, though, it seems the wisdom about separating ads and editorial has withered away. More and more publications (even daily newspapers, which claim to be the last bastions of journalistic integrity) run ads adjacent to related content. Sometimes, this might be the result of simple oversight, miscommunication or a good, old-fashioned screw-up. But it seems more likely that it’s becoming an accepted practice — which suggests to me that the, for lack of a better phrase, the advertisers (and, from the agency’s perspective, the clients) have the upper hand. Which, in this case, would put in mind such clichés as “the tail is wagging the dog,” “the inmates are running the asylum” and “money talks.”

Certainly, these are lean times, and publications are struggling to make ends meet. Often, that leads to corner cutting. At the same time, advertisers are struggling to get the most out of limited marketing budgets. That often leads to desperation and bad ideas.

Maybe I’m just out of sync. Maybe I’m behind the times. Maybe I missed the memo about credibility no longer being important. Still, somehow, I think publications and advertisers will regret this shift. But I’m also afraid they’ll find there’s no going back.

So, if I were to throw some advice into this rant, I would say this: Resist this trend. Regardless of which side of the holy editorial/advertising divide you’re on, insist for separation between ads and editorial.

After all, when credibility is no longer something everyone worries about, it becomes a true point of distinction for those who do care about it.

  1. Not to mention the ads that are actually embedded in the online editorial as links back to the client’s website.

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