The Separation Between Advertising and Editorial Content: Have the Boundaries Shifted?

In a thoughtful blog,  senior online editor Jason Fell of,  (“Media’s Ad/Edit Relationship Is Getting Increasingly More Hazy” writes:

“A content producer—whether a magazine editor or a network producer—would like to believe that the content they create can be distributed to consumers without input or intrusion from the advertising side of the business. It’s the great ethical ad/edit divide that our collective media industry has lived and died by for hundreds of years.

“But that immovable boundary has in fact shifted. Examples have trickled out over the years, most recently with magazines like ESPN the Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Scholastic Parent & Child featuring ads on their covers.”

Fell discusses a controversy that arose recently between the publisher of SHAPE Magazine and the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). The flap involves a cover story on Ellen DeGeneres published in the May issue. According to Mediaweek, ads for Vitamin Water that quote DeGeneres appear in close proximity to the DeGeneres feature. The issue also contains a CoverGirl makeup ad with DeGeneres in it, and DeGeneres is said to be wearing CoverGirl makeup in the cover photo of her. ASME asserts that the DeGeneres story violates their guidelines intended to preserve the integrity of editorial content.

What should we make of all this?

There is no question that the invisible wall that in theory separates the advertising and editorial departments is porous and the holes are getting larger. But in my experience, the wall was breached long ago if, in fact, it ever existed.

As a cub reporter some 40 years ago I was assigned to write a story about a strike planned at a large department store at the start of the Christmas shopping season. I dutifully wrote a balanced story with quotes from both sides. The story didn’t run. I asked the editor why. He smiled and said, “Some day you’ll understand why kid.” I didn’t take me long to figure it out. Soon thereafter I was assigned to write a story on a new resort community for the Sunday paper — “Business Office Must,” I was told. Turns out the resort developer had purchased a paid insert on the project. Smart kid that I was, I reckoned that if the resort story was a “business office must,” the strike story was a “business office must not.”

Years later, as press secretary for a Congressional candidate, I visited the editor/publisher of an influential weekly newspaper to pitch an interview with the candidate. He told me he’d be happy to do the interview if we took out an ad., which we did. I’ve also dealt with publications that promised to run press releases if we paid to run a photo with it (this was in the pre-digital age). Colleagues of mine in marketing tell me it remains a common practice to seek favorable editorial coverage for companies that advertise regularly.

On television and radio today we routinely encounter suspect broadcast segueways from news and commentary to commercials delivered by the so called newscasters. We also see ubiquitous product placements on television and in movies and are forced to endure shameless and inane self-promotion of entertainment shows in network and regional newscasts.

I don’t know enough about the SHAPE/DeGeneres cover story matter to have an informed opinion on whether it violated ASME guidelines. I can say that as such alleged transgressions go, this one doesn’t bother me much. With or without paid advertising inside, a cover story on DeGeneres for this magazine makes eminent good sense editorially. Indeed it might be considered a coup to have landed the story. It seems just as plausible to posit that advertisers decided to jump on the bandwagon after learning of the cover story as the reverse.

The litany of transgressions in both traditional and social media seems endless, and I’m afraid that many people today, especially young people, are either unaware of what’s happening or don’t care.  While the fusion of editorial content and advertising is disturbing, I’m afraid the trend is irreversible. Which means readers, listeners and viewers must be on the look out, and must learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. I’m afraid that’s the best we do.

Explore posts in the same categories: News Media

2 Comments on “The Separation Between Advertising and Editorial Content: Have the Boundaries Shifted?”

  1. Rod Cooper Says:

    Haha am I actually the only comment to this incredible writing!

  2. davidmrosen Says:

    Apparently you are. And apparently I’m a better writer than I am a marketer.

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