| September/October 1997 |
Columbia Journalism Review
by Russ Baker
Baker is a free-lance writer who lives in New York. His
last piece for
the March/April issue, was about the Food Lion v. ABC trial.
In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that
Chrysler Corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial
content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any
editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive. Each and
every issue that carries Chrysler advertising requires a written summary
outlining major theme/articles appearing in upcoming issues. These
summaries are to be forwarded to PentaCom prior to closing in order to
give Chrysler ample time to review and reschedule if desired . . . As
acknowledgement of this letter we ask that you or a representative from
the publication sign below and return to us no later than February 15.
- from a letter sent by Chrysler's ad agency, PentaCom, a
division of BBDO North America, to at least fifty magazines
Is there any doubt that advertisers mumble and sometimes roar about
reporting that can hurt them? That the auto giants don't like pieces that,
say, point to auto safety problems? Or that Big Tobacco hates to see its
glamorous, cheerful ads juxtaposed with articles mentioning their best
customers' grim way of death? When advertisers disapprove of an editorial
climate, they can - and sometimes do - take a hike.
But for Chrysler to push beyond its parochial economic interests - by
demanding summaries of upcoming articles while implicitly asking editors
to think twice about running "sexual, political, social issues" - crosses
a sharply defined line. "This is new," says Milton Glaser, the New York
Magazine co-founder and celebrated designer. "It will have a devastating
effect on the idea of a free press and of free inquiry."
Glaser is among those in the press who are vocally urging editors and
publishers to resist. "If Chrysler achieves this," he says, "there is no
reason to hope that other advertisers won't ask for the same privilege.
You will have thirty or forty advertisers checking through the pages. They
will send notes to publishers. I don't see how any good citizen doesn't
rise to this occasion and say this development is un-American and a threat
Hyperbole? Maybe not. Just about any editor will tell you: the ad/edit
chemistry is changing for the worse. Corporations and their ad agencies
have clearly turned up the heat on editors and publishers, and some
magazines are capitulating, unwilling to risk even a single ad. This makes
it tougher for those who do fight to maintain the ad-edit wall and put the
interests of their readers first.
A major advertiser recently approached all three newsweeklies - Time,
Newsweek, and U.S. News - and told them it would be closely monitoring
editorial content. So says a high newsweekly executive who was given the
warning (but who would not name the advertiser). For the next quarter, the
advertiser warned the magazines' publishing sides, it would keep track of
how the company's industry was portrayed in news columns. At the end of
that period, the advertiser would select one - and only one - of the
magazines and award all of its newsweekly advertising to it.
An auto manufacturer - not Chrysler - decided recently to play art
director at a major glossy, and the magazine played along. After the
magazine scheduled a photo spread that would feature more bare skin than
usual, it engaged in a back-and-forth negotiation with that advertiser
over exactly how much skin would be shown. CJR's source says the feature
had nothing to do with the advertiser's product.
Kimberly-Clark makes Huggies diapers and advertises them in a number
of magazines, including Child, American Baby, Parenting, Parents, Baby
Talk, and Sesame Street Parents. Kimberly-Clark demands - in writing in
its ad insertion orders - that these ads be placed only "adjacent to black
and white happy baby editorial," which would definitely not include
stories about, say, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or Down's syndrome.
"Sometimes we have to create editorial that is satisfactory to them," a
top editor says. That, of course, means something else is likely lost, and
the mix of the magazine is altered.
Former Cosmo girl Helen Gurley Brown disclosed to Newsday that a
Detroit auto company representative (the paper didn't say which company)
asked for - and received - an advance copy of the table of contents for
her bon voyage issue, then threatened to pull a whole series of ads unless
the representative was permitted to see an article titled "How to Be Very
Good in Bed." Result? "A senior editor and the client's ad agency pulled a
few things from the piece," a dispirited Brown recalled, "but enough was
left" to salvage the article.
Cosmo is hardly the only magazine that has bowed to the new
winds. Kurt Andersen, the former New York magazine editor - whose
1996 firing by parent company K-III was widely perceived to be a result of
stories that angered associates of K-III's founder, Henry R. Kravis -
nonetheless says that he always kept advertisers' sensibilities in mind
when editing the magazine. "Because I worked closely and happily with the
publisher at New York, I was aware who the big advertisers were," he says.
"My antennae were turned on, and I read copy thinking, 'Is this going to
cause Calvin Klein or Bergdorf big problems?'"
National Review put a reverse spin on the
early-warning-for-advertisers discussion recently, as The Washington
Post revealed, when its advertising director sent an advance copy of a
piece about utilities deregulation to a an energy supplier mentioned in
the story, as a way of luring it into buying space.
And Chrysler is hardly the only company that is aggressive about its
editorial environment. Manufacturers of packaged goods, from toothpaste to
toilet paper, aggressively declare their love for plain-vanilla.
Colgate-Palmolive, for example, won't allow ads in a "media context"
containing "offensive" sexual content or material it deems "antisocial or
in bad taste" - which it leaves undefined in its policy statement sent to
magazines. In the statement, the company says that it "charges its
advertising agencies and their media buying services with the
responsibility of pre-screening any questionable media content or
Procter & Gamble, the second-largest advertising spender last year
($1.5 billion), has a reputation as being very touchy. Two publishing
executives told Gloria Steinem, for her book Moving Beyond Words, that the
company doesn't want its ads near anything about "gun control, abortion,
the occult, cults, or the disparagement of religion." Even nonsensational
and sober pieces dealing with sex and drugs are no-go.
Kmart and Revlon are among those that editors list as the most
demanding. "IBM is a stickler - they don't like any kind of controversial
articles," says Robyn Mathews, formerly of Entertainment Weekly and
now Time's chief of makeup. She negotiates with advertisers about
placement, making sure that their products are not put near material that
is directly critical. AT&T, Mathews says, is another company that prefers
a soft climate. She says she often has to tell advertisers, "We're a news
magazine. I try to get them to be realistic."
Still, the auto companies apparently lead the pack in complaining
about content. And the automakers are so powerful - the Big Three pumped
$3.6 billion into U.S. advertising last year - that most major magazines
have sales offices in Detroit.
After The New Yorker, in its issue of June 12, 1995, ran a Talk
of the Town piece that quoted some violent, misogynist rap and rock lyrics
- along with illustrative four-letter words - opposite a Mercury ad, Ford
Motor Company withdrew from the magazine, reportedly for six months. The
author, Ken Auletta, learned about it only this year. "I actually admire
The New Yorker for not telling me about it," he says. Yet afterwards,
according to The Wall Street Journal, the magazine quietly adopted a
system of warning about fifty companies on a "sensitive advertiser list"
whenever potentially offensive articles are scheduled.
It is the Chrysler case, though, that has made the drums beat, partly
because of Chrysler's heft and partly because the revelation about the
automaker's practice came neatly packaged with a crystalline example of
just what that practice can do to a magazine.
In the advertising jungle Chrysler is an 800-pound gorilla - the
nation's fourth-largest advertiser and fifth-largest magazine advertiser
(it spent some $270 million at more than 100 magazines last year, behind
General Motors, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, and Ford). Where it
leads, other advertisers may be tempted to follow.
The automaker's letter was mailed to magazines in January 1996, but
did not come to light until G. Bruce Knecht of The Wall Street Journal
unearthed it this April in the aftermath of an incident at Esquire. The
Journal reported that Esquire had planned a sixteen-page layout for
a 20,000-word fiction piece by accomplished author David Leavitt. Already
in page proofs and scheduled for the April '97 issue, it was to be one of
the longest short stories Esquire had ever run, and it had a gay
theme and some raw language. But publisher Valerie Salembier, the Journal
reported, met with then editor-in-chief Edward Kosner and other editors
and voiced her concerns: she would have to notify Chrysler about the
story, and she expected that when she did so Chrysler would pull its ads.
The automaker had bought four pages, the Journal noted - just enough to
enable the troubled magazine to show its first year-to-year ad-page
improvement since the previous September.
Kosner then killed the piece, maintaining he had editorial reasons for
doing so. Will Blythe, the magazine's literary editor, promptly quit. "I
simply can't stomach the David Leavitt story being pulled," he said in his
letter of resignation. "That act signals a terrible narrowing of the field
available to strong, adventuresome, risk-taking work, fiction and
nonfiction alike. I know that editorial and advertising staffs have
battled - sometimes affably, other times savagely - for years to define
and protect their respective turfs. But events of the last few weeks
signal that the balance is out of whack now - that, in effect, we're
taking marching orders (albeit, indirectly) from advertisers."
The Chrysler letter's public exposure is a rough reminder that
sometimes the biggest problems are the most cliched: as financial concerns
become increasingly paramount it gets harder to assert editorial
independence. After the article about Esquire in the Journal, the
American Society of Magazine Editors - the top cops of magazine standards,
with 867 members from 370 magazines - issued a statement expressing "deep
concern" over the trend to give "advertisers advance notice about upcoming
stories." Some advertisers, ASME said, "may mistake an early warning as an
open invitation to pressure the publisher to alter, or even kill, the
article in question. We believe publishers should - and will - refuse to
bow to such pressure. Furthermore, we believe editors should - and will -
follow ASME's explicit principle of editorial independence, which at its
core states: 'The chief editor of any magazine must have final authority
over the editorial content, words, and pictures that appear in the
On July 24, after meeting with the ASME board, the marketing committee
of the Magazine Publishers of America - which has 200 member companies
that print more than 800 magazines - gathered to discuss this issue, and
agreed to work against prior review of story lists or summaries by
advertisers. "The magazine industry is united in this," says ASME's
president, Frank Lalli, managing editor of Money. "There is no debate
within the industry."
How many magazines will reject Chrysler's new road map? Unclear. Lalli
says he has not found any publisher or editor who signed and returned the
Chrysler letter as demanded. "I've talked to a lot of publishers," he
says, "and I don't know of any who will bow to it. The great weight of
opinion among publishers and editors is that this is a road we can't go
Yet Mike Aberlich, Chrysler's manager of consumer media relations,
claims that "Every single one has been signed." Aberlich says that in some
cases, individual magazines agreed; in others a parent company signed for
all its publications.
CJR did turn up several magazines, mostly in jam-packed demographic
niches, whose executives concede they have no problem with the Chrysler
letter. One is Maxim, a new book aimed at the young-men-with-bucks
market put out by the British-based Dennis Publishing. "We're going to
play ball," says Maxim's sales manager, Jamie Hooper. The startup,
which launched earlier this year, signed and returned the Chrysler letter.
"We're complying. We definitely have to."
At P.O.V., a two-and-a-half-year-old magazine backed largely by
Freedom Communications Inc. (owners of The Orange County Register)
and aimed at a similar audience, publisher Drew Massey says he remembers a
Chrysler letter, can't remember signing it, but would have no problem
providing advance notice. "We do provide PentaCom with a courtesy call,
but we absolutely never change an article." Chrysler, alerted to P.O.V.'s
August "Vice" issue, decided to stay in. Massey argues that the real issue
is not about edgy magazines like P.O.V., but about larger and tamer
magazines that feel constrained by advertisers from being adventurous.
Hachette Filipacchi, French-owned publisher of twenty-nine U.S.
titles, from Elle to George, offered Chrysler's plan for a
safe editorial environment partial support. Says John Fennell, chief
operating officer: "We did respond to the letter, saying we were aware of
their concern about controversial material and that we would continue - as
we have in the past - to monitor it very closely and to make sure that
their advertising did not appear near controversial things. However, we
refused to turn over or show or discuss the editorial direction of
articles with them."
It has long been a widely accepted practice in the magazine industry
to provide "heads-ups" - warnings to advertisers about copy that might
embarrass them - say, to the friendly skies folks about a scheduled
article on an Everglades plane crash, or to Johnnie Walker about a feature
on the death of a hard-drinking rock star. In some instances, advertisers
are simply moved as far as possible from the potentially disconcerting
material. In others, they are offered a chance to opt out of the issue
altogether, ideally to be rescheduled for a later edition.
In the 1980s, Japanese car makers got bent out of shape about news
articles they saw as Japan-bashing, says Business Week's
editor-in-chief, Stephen B. Shepard, a past ASME president. Anything about
closed markets or the trade imbalance might be seen as requiring a polite
switch to the next issue. Chrysler, some magazine people argue, is simply
formalizing this long-standing advertiser policy of getting magazine
executives to consider their special sensitivities while assembling each
issue. But Chrysler's letter clearly went beyond that. PentaCom's
president and CEO, David Martin, was surprisingly blunt when he
explained to The Wall Street Journal the automaker's rationale:
"Our whole contention is that when you are looking at a product that costs
$22,000, you want the product to be surrounded by positive things. There's
nothing positive about an article about child pornography."
Chrysler spokesman Aberlich insists the brouhaha is no big deal: "Of
the thousands of magazine ads we've placed in a year, we've moved an ad
out of one issue into the next issue about ten times a year. We haven't
stopped dealing with any magazine." He compares placing an ad to buying a
house: "You decide the neighborhood you want to be in." That interesting
metaphor, owning valuable real estate, leads to other metaphors -
advertisers as editorial NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) trying to keep out
anybody or anything they don't want around. As for the current
contretemps, Aberlich says it's nothing new, that Chrysler has been
requesting advance notice since 1993. "We sent an initial letter to
magazines asking them to notify us of upcoming controversial stuff -
graphic sex, graphic violence, glorification of drug use." But what about
the updated and especially chilling language in the 1996 letter, the one
asking to look over editors' shoulders at future articles, particularly
political, social material and editorial that might be construed as
provocative? Aberlich declines to discuss it, bristling, "We didn't give
you that letter."
How did we get to the point where a sophisticated advertiser dared
send such a letter? In these corporate-friendly times, the sweep and
powers of advertisers are frenetically expanded everywhere. Formerly pure
public television and public radio now run almost-ads. Schools bombard
children with cereal commercials in return for the monitors on which the
ads appear. Parks blossom with yogurt- and sneaker-sponsored events.
Meanwhile, a growing number of publications compete for ad dollars -
not just against each other but against the rest of the media, including
new media. Those ads are bought by ever-larger companies and placed by a
shrinking number of merger-minded ad agencies.
Are magazines in a position where they cannot afford to alienate any
advertiser? No, as a group, magazines have done very well lately, thank
you. With only minor dips, ad pages and total advertising dollars have
grown impressively for a number of years. General-interest magazines sold
$5.3 billion worth of advertising in 1987. By 1996 that figure had more
than doubled, to $11.2 billion.
Prosperity can enhance independence. The magazines least susceptible
to advertiser pressures are often the most ad-laden books. Under its new
editor-in-chief, David Granger, the anemic Esquire seems to be
getting a lift, but GQ had supplanted it in circulation and in the
serious-article business, earning many National Magazine Awards. This is
in part because it first used advertiser-safe service pieces and celebrity
profiles to build ad pages, then had more space to experiment and take
Catherine Viscardi Johnston, senior vice president for group sales and
marketing at GQ's parent company, the financially flush Conde Nast,
says that in her career as a publisher she rarely was asked to reschedule
an ad - perhaps once a year. Meddling has not been a problem, she says:
"Never was a page lost, or an account lost. Never, never did an advertiser
try to have a story changed or eliminated."
At the other extreme, Maxim, which signed the Chrysler letter,
does face grueling ad-buck competition. The number of new magazine
startups in 1997 may well exceed 1,000, says Samir Husni, the University
of Mississippi journalism professor who tracks launches. And Maxim's
demographic - 21 to 34-year-old males - is jam-packed with titles.
This is not to say that prosperity and virtue go hand in hand. Witness
Conde Nast's ad-fat Architectural Digest, where editor-in-chief
Paige Rense freely admits that only advertisers are mentioned in picture
captions. The range of standards among magazines is wide.
And that range can be confusing. "Some advertisers don't understand on
a fundamental level the difference between magazines that have a serious
set of rules and codes and serious ambitions, and those that don't," says
Kurt Andersen. "The same guy at Chrysler is buying ads in YM and
The New Yorker."
If it is up to editors to draw the line, they will have to buck the
industry's impulse to draw them even deeper into their magazines' business
issues. Hachette Filipacchi's U.S. president and CEO, David Pecker, is
one who would lower the traditional ad-edit wall. "I actually know editors
who met with advertisers and lived to tell about it," he said in a recent
speech. Some editors at Hachette - and other news organizations - share in
increased profits at their magazines. Thus, to offend an advertiser, it
might be argued, would be like volunteering for a pay cut. So be it;
intrepid editors must be prepared to take that.
Ironically, in fretting over public sensibilities, advertisers may not
be catering to their consumers at all. In a recent study of public opinion
regarding television - which is even more dogged by content controversies
than magazines - 87 percent of respondents said it is appropriate for
network programs to deal with sensitive issues and social problems. (The
poll was done for ABC, NBC, and CBS by the Roper Starch Worldwide market
research firm.) Asked who should "have the most to say about what people
see and hear on television," 82 percent replied that it ought to be
"individual viewers themselves, by deciding what they will and will not
watch." Almost no one - just 9 percent - thought advertisers should be
able to shape content by granting or withholding sponsorship. Even
PentaCom admitted to the Journal that its own focus groups show
that Chrysler owners are not bothered by Chrysler ads near controversial
So what's eating these folks? Partially, it may be a cultural
phenomenon. Ever since magazines began to attract mass audiences and
subsidize subscription rates with advertising, many magazines have chased
readers - just as networks chase viewers now - with ever more salacious
fare. But corporate executives have often remained among the most
conservative of Americans. Nowhere is this truer than in heartland
locations like Chrysler's Detroit or Procter & Gamble's Cincinnati.
Ad executives say one factor in the mix is sponsors' fear of activist
groups, which campaign against graphic or gay or other kinds of editorial
material perceived as "anti-family." Boycotts like the current Southern
Baptist campaign against Disney for "anti-family values" may be on the
rise, precisely because advertisers do take them seriously. This, despite
a lack of evidence that such boycotts do much damage. "Boycotts have no
discernible impact on sales. Usually, the public's awareness is so quickly
dissipated that it has no impact at all," says Elliot Mincberg,
vice-president and general counsel of People For the American Way, a
liberal organization that tracks the impact of pressure groups. Why, then,
would advertisers bother setting guidelines that satisfy these groups at
all? "They're trying to minimize their risk to zero," says an incredulous
Will Blythe, Esquire's former literary editor.
Yet not every advertiser pines for the bland old days. The hotter the
product, it seems, the cooler the heads. The "vice" peddlers (booze &
cigarettes), along with some apparel and consumer electronics products,
actually like being surrounded by edgy editorial copy - unless their own
product is zapped. Party on!
Even Chrysler's sensitivities appear to be selective. Maxim's
premier issue featured six women chatting provocatively about their sex
lives, plus several photos of women in scanty come-hither attire, but
Chrysler had no grievances.
The real danger here is not censorship by advertisers. It is
self-censorship by editors. On one level, self-censorship results in
omissions, small and large, that delight big advertisers.
Cigarettes are a clear and familiar example. The tobacco companies'
hefty advertising in many a magazine seems in inverse proportion to the
publication's willingness to criticize it. Over at the American Cancer
Society, media director Susan Islam says that women's magazines tend to
cover some concerns adequately, but not lung cancer: "Many more women die
of lung cancer, yet there have hardly been any articles on it."
To her credit, Glamour's editor-in-chief, Ruth Whitney, is one
who has run tobacco stories. She says that her magazine, which carries a
lot of tobacco advertising, publishes the results of every major smoking
study. But Whitney concedes they are mostly short pieces. "Part of the
problem with cigarettes was - we did do features, but there's nobody in
this country who doesn't know cigarettes kill." Still, everybody also
knows that getting slimmer requires exercise and eating right, which has
not prevented women's magazines from running that story in endless
permutations. Tobacco is in the news, and magazines have the unique job of
deepening and humanizing such stories. Specific editorial omissions are
easier to measure than how a magazine's world view is altered when
advertisers' preferences and sensitivities seep into the editing. When
editors act like publishers, and vice versa, the reader is out the door.
Can ASME, appreciated among editors for its intentions, fire up the
troops? The organization has been effective on another front - against
abuses of special advertising sections, when advertisements try to adapt
the look and feel of editorial matter. ASME has distributed a set of
guidelines about just what constitutes such abuse.
To enforce those guidelines, ASME executive director Marlene Kahan
says the organization sends a couple of letters each month to violators.
"Most magazines say they will comply," she reports. "If anybody is really
egregiously violating the guidelines on a consistent basis, we'd probably
sit down and have a meeting with them." ASME can ban a magazine from
participating in the National Magazine Awards, but Kahan says the
organization has not yet had to do that. In addition, ASME occasionally
asks the organization that officially counts magazine ad pages, the
Publishers Information Bureau, not to count advertising sections that
break the rules as ad pages - a tactic that ASME president Lalli says
tends to get publishers' attention.
Not everyone in the industry thinks ASME throws much of a shadow. "ASME
can't bite the hand that feeds them," says John Masterton of Media
Industry Newsletter, which covers the magazine business. During Robert
Sam Anson's brief tenure as editor of Los Angeles magazine, the
business side committed to a fifteen-page supplement, to be written by the
editorial side and called "The Mercedes Golf Special." Mercedes didn't
promise to take any ads, but it was hoped that the carmaker would think
kindly of the magazine for future issues. The section would appear as
editorial, listed as such in the table of contents. Anson warned the
business side that, in his opinion, the section would contravene ASME
guidelines, since it was in effect an ad masquerading as edit. A senior
executive told him not to worry - that at the most they'd get a "slap on
the wrist." The section did not run in the end, Anson says, because of
"deadline production problems."
The Chrysler model, however - with its demand for early warnings, and
its insistence on playing editor - is tougher for ASME to police. Special
advertising sections are visible. Killed or altered articles are not. And
unless it surfaces, as in the Esquire case, self-censorship is
One well-known editor, who asks not to be identified, thinks the
problem will eventually go away. "It's a self-regulating thing," he says.
"At some point, the negative publicity to the advertisers will cause them
to back off."
Of course, there is nothing particularly automatic about that. It
takes an outspoken journalistic community to generate heat. And such
attention could backfire. The Journal's Knecht told the audience of
public radio's On the Media that his reporting might actually have
aggravated the problem: "One of the negative effects is that more
advertisers who weren't aware of this system have gone to their
advertising agencies and said, 'Hey, why not me too! This sounds like a
pretty good deal!'"
Except, of course, that it really isn't. In the long run everybody
involved is diminished when editors feel advertisers' breath on their
necks. Hovering there, advertisers help create content that eventually
bores the customers they seek. Then the editors of those magazines tend to
join the ranks of the unemployed. That's just one of the many reasons that
editors simply cannot bend to the new pressure. They have to draw the line
- subtly or overtly, quietly or loudly, in meetings and in private, and in
their own minds.