I have written about this subject before, and some of you may be growing weary of hearing me talk about it. Nonetheless, I will risk becoming a bore (defined by my hero, Ambrose Bierce, in his “Devil’s Dictionary” as “a person who talks when you wish him to listen”), because the question keeps popping up.
The question is this: Can you buy editorial coverage in a magazine by buying advertising space?
The answer, unhappily, is “yes and no.” Let me explain.
In most publishing companies, the editorial department and advertising department are separate. Generally, the two departments report to the publisher, who has overall profit-and-loss responsibility for the publication. The publisher thus may have some influence over editorial content, although in some publishing houses the publisher is not allowed any control over the editorial pages.
Naturally, the two departments consult frequently with one another. Editors pass along advertising leads to the sales staff, and the advertising department feeds information to the editors about their customers. The final word on what goes into the editorial pages, though, belongs to the editor, and I can tell you that many editors are fiercely protective of their independence.
In an ideal world, then, it would be impossible to trade advertising for editorial coverage.
The real world is slightly messier, and the devil is in the details. Editors know who pays the bills, and they are certainly aware of who their major advertisers are. If you are an advertiser, it may help you get their attention, and it may increase the likelihood of their returning your calls.
I have found through experience that the worst way to approach an editor is by offering to buy advertising or threatening to withhold advertising as punishment for perceived editorial bias. It’s possible you might succeed in getting your way. Publications are fighting tooth-and-nail for advertising revenue, and you might persuade the publisher to intervene with the editor or writer on your behalf. But remember the old adage about winning the battle and losing the war. Do you really want to make an enemy of the person who controls access to the readers? What do you suppose the editor will do with your press releases in the future?
It’s true there are some publishing houses that overtly swap free editorial for ads. Their sales pitch is direct and unambiguous: Buy an ad, and we’ll publish your article for free. My personal opinion is readers are smart enough to recognize the difference between advertorial sales messages and independent editorial content. Publishers who indulge in this practice, I believe, ultimately diminish the value of their product by destroying credibility with their readers. I can tell you that savvy media buyers evaluate the publication’s editorial credibility along with its circulation figures when deciding where to spend their advertising dollars.
Mind you, there are two sides to this coin. It’s not just the advertising salespersons who corrupt the system. Equally guilty are those advertisers who throw their weight around, demanding a guaranteed number of front covers and boat reviews as a condition of their ad schedules.
Let me close by referring you to the ethical guidelines adopted by Boating Writers International. The BWI guidelines expressly condemn the practice of trading advertising for editorial content and state that advertorial or sponsored sections should be clearly labeled as paid advertising. Most publications, including the one you are reading, endorse these guidelines. So do the public relations professionals who are members of BWI. You can view the full document at www.bwi.org.
Jim Rhodes is president of Rhodes Communications Inc., an international public relations and marketing services company based in Norfolk, Va. He has been involved in the boating business for more than 30 years and served on a select committee to draft the BWI ethical guidelines in 2002.
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.