March 17, 2010
/ by Katrina M Mendolera
In ads we trust
Fifteen years ago, the idea of putting an advertisement on the front page of a newspaper wouldn’t even have been considered, said David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group. But times are hard for print media and in the last year, front page advertising has started to become a trend among some newspapers and magazines. “In this day and age of newspapers, the ethical lines are blurred by the desire to survive,” Coates said.
The latest to make headlines is the Los Angeles Times, which made waves when its March 5th edition hit newsstands wrapped in a four-page advertising section designed to look like the front page. Sporting a massive picture of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland,” the advertisement received scathing comments from readers: “I’ve gradually gotten used to the brutal cuts at the sadly declining Times, but this front-page movie ad says it all: You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole,” one reader wrote. Many other outraged comments followed, but there were also readers who understood: “I’m at the point that whatever it takes for any newspaper to survive, I’ll go along with it. I would hope that any paper – Los Angeles Times included – would know where to draw the line. I was initially surprised when I saw the front page, but it only took a few seconds to realize it was an advertisement. Come on people – this is the ‘home paper’ for the movie industry – you really should have known!”
Despite some of the negative comments aimed at the LA Times for its recent ad, media economist and founder of the M.E.D.I.Advisory Group Jack Myers believes that it won’t deter readers. “If newspapers do it infrequently it will be an annoyance; if ads are on the front page daily, readers will become accustomed and grow to accept them,” Myers said in an e-mail interview.
The LA Times is not the only metro daily to have put the front page up for sale. The New York Times has used the front page as real estate before, as has its rival the Wall Street Journal. Magazines have also joined the fray. According to Advertising Age, Parent & Child magazine put an ad on its cover last April and has been running ads every month since, including ads for Juicy Juice, SunnyD Smoothies and PediaSure. Blog Magazine reports that ESPN the Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire have forayed into front page advertising “with cover ads as pouches, flaps and other gimmicky solutions.” Yet despite the critics, Advertising Age also reported that a study by Affinity’s Vista service found that ads on the front cover actually do very well “and often outperform magazines’ other premium real estate.”
Is news going back to its roots? Front page advertisements were quite common in 19th-century newspapers, Southern California journalism professor Bryce Nelson told Crain’s New York last April after the LA Times ran an a controversial front page ad for NBC’s “Southland.”
“There is no ethical barrier to adding advertising,” Myers said. “It is good for revenues, but is a further reflection of the profound challenges facing publishers.” Coates disagrees. While print media has fallen on hard times and advertorials are becoming more necessary to keep them afloat, he believes there must be a clear distinction between what is advertising and what is editorial. “If an advertorial reads like an objective story in the newspaper and it is not clear to the reader that this was a pay for play story, then it becomes a dangerous line to cross and a very questionable ethical issue.”
— Katrina M. Mendolera
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