The headline was all in caps, but it didn’t need to be. The content alone was enough to scare the bejesus out of any journalist: “”MARKETERS PRESS FOR PRODUCT PLACEMENT IN MAGAZINE TEXT,”” it read. It was a story in a recent Adweek.

In an iconoclastic call to end the “”church and state””

rule that has traditionally separated editorial content from explicit advertising material, marketing executives from firms like Sears Roebuck said they want print publications to come up with a new trick. We’re not talking about mere advertorials, which one source in the story complained “”doesn’t feel like part of the fabric”” of the magazine, but simply paying to become part of a storyline. You know, kind of like the way Ford cars regularly appear on 24, or how Sarah Jessica Parker’s character on Sex in the City never went anywhere without an Apple notebook.

There is nothing new in this desire among advertisers. What’s striking is their willingness to ask for it so openly, an unexpected byproduct of the economic slump that has hit almost all print media. A rate card by itself is no longer good enough for anyone, and sales reps are discovering they can’t milk revenue from the same old clients anymore. From a design standpoint, we’re running out of options. After gatefolds, window pane covers or pop-ups, how can else can we reinvent this wheel?

Some of the sources quoted in AdWeek admitted they weren’t sure how to replicate the kind of product placements we see on television or in the movies. The best they’ve managed so far is to increase spending on public relations activities, and coming up with the kind of user stories that we at publications in the IT Business Group try to rework in such a way that our readers’ needs are served appropriately. As aggressive as the agencies may be, however, they can’t force our hand to accept any pitches, because they’re not paying us. Suddenly the question has become: And what if they did?

This might seem like a dilemma of particular concern to trade magazines, which are often dismissed as advertising vehicles disguised as editorial products, but everyone is worried. We’ve already seen the lines blurring with “”magalogues”” like Harry Rosen’s custom publication. Some of the most successful launches in the last year have also included highly product-oriented content like Gear and Cargo for men, and Lucky and Real Simple for women. In Canada, Rogers has gotten in on the game, and last week St. Joseph Media joined them with Wish.

 

At the same time, however, we’ve seen a number of young magazines emerge in Canada that position themselves at the other end of the divide. The Walrus, Maisonneuve and even the persistent Saturday Night are thriving with ad pages and increasing circulation with an obvious adherence to the “”church and state”” rule. Publications like Toronto Life, meanwhile, refused to back down and pull a SARS-related story when a major advertiser complained about the possible effects on Toronto’s tourism industry. This became one way a Toronto Life advertiser became part of the storyline, but it’s not one that will be published in the pages of the magazine in question.

Readers might not seem to distinguish editorial from advertising sometimes, but inundate them with marketing where it doesn’t belong and they’ll look elsewhere. Legitimate journalism adheres to something like the first law of thermodynamics: it can’t be destroyed but merely emerges somewhere else, like blogs on the Internet. If product placements add to the coffers of print media in the short run they will put them out of business in the long run, leaving advertisers to search for yet another way of reaching the right audience.

You can put a story and a sales pitch next to each other, but any closer and readers feel manipulated, as though they’ve lost control. That’s even scarier than the loss of control writers, editors, and publishers are feeling right now. I’m one of those people, of course, which might make me sound biased. But I don’t care. I’m still on the church side, and until this industry loses its mind I will use this pulpit to try and save it.

schick@itbusiness.ca

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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