Advertising Corrupts

For more than 25 years, I worked as an editor at a monthly magazine. My entire salary was paid, ultimately, by advertisers. It would be churlish of me to bite the hand that fed me. And yet, the destructive effects of advertising are hard to ignore.

The difficulty is, when advertisers are spending thousands of dollars every month (or, if the ads are in a newspaper, every day), they start trying to throw their weight around. The idealistic view of advertising is that the advertiser buys page space in which to display their ad. The reality is that sooner or later most advertisers will start trying to influence the editorial content of the publication.

They may object loudly to a feature that has already been published, and pull their ads (temporarily or forever). More subtly, they may suggest features that they would like to see published, features in which their products are favorably highlighted. It’s also very standard in the music industry for editors to be provided with free software and even hardware, a topic that would take us far enough astray that I may explore it in a separate blog entry. (Full disclosure: I have certainly benefited, and very significantly, from this practice.)

Various publications handle these pressures in various ways. Or rather, various publishers handle them in various ways. Ultimately, it’s up to the person sitting behind the publisher’s desk to decide how to respond to the pressures that are brought to bear.

From 1975, when Keyboard launched, through 1988, when the music magazine group was acquired by Miller Freeman Inc., the publisher was Jim Crockett. Jim was able to maintain a fairly effective barrier (the industry term is “firewall”) between the advertising side and the editorial side. The business was successful, which meant he could afford to take the high road — but also, he had been a writer and editor first. He understood the issues.

When Miller Freeman took over, little holes began to appear in that wall.

By the mid-1990s, when Greg Rule was the editor of Keyboard, the holes were too large for a little Dutch boy to plug any of them with his thumb. I remember Greg saying, more than once, that he wanted advertisers to “feel the love.” By this, he meant that he wanted advertisers to see that the editorial package (the features, columns, product reviews, etc.) supported their business in one way or another.

I am no longer on the staff of Keyboard, so I can’t speak to how such pressures are handled today. My strong impression is that the current editor, Steve Fortner, works very hard to put out a magazine that readers will find genuinely relevant and useful. But Steve is working within a business climate so harsh that I’m glad I’m no longer part of it.

The Internet has made life enormously more difficult for all print publications, for several reasons. Primarily, manufacturers now have potent new ways to reach potential customers, and readers have grown to expect content for free. But the firewall between advertising and editorial at Keyboard started to erode years before the Internet came along.

It’s the readers who are hurt by this erosion. Thought-provoking or inspiring features are not published — they’re never even considered. Hey, remember when Keyboard published long interviews with classical pianists? When was the last time that happened? Several factors have influenced the shift in content, but first and foremost, the mandate coming from the front office is to provide endless reams of coverage of new products.

Uncritical coverage, that is. To the best of my knowledge, the product reviews published by Keyboard (and I’ve written an enormous number of them over the years, both while on staff and, since 2002, as a freelancer) are honest, but even beneath the flimsy umbrella of technical honesty, stuff happens.

First, products that are badly designed, no matter how heavily advertised, tend not to get reviewed at all. Okay, it makes more sense (up to a point) to devote your limited page space to great new products that readers will want to know about. Even so, failing to call a turkey a turkey is dishonesty by omission. Second, because of the chronic shortage of page space in the magazine, there’s less room to discuss a product’s faults when you do review it. Faults that the reviewer judges are minor (however crucial they might be to a few musicians) tend not to be mentioned, in order to devote the limited space to the major features of the product. To be fair, the major features may be quite cool, but again, this is a case of dishonesty by omission.

Third, all product reviews go through a fact-check process prior to publication. The manufacturer is sent a draft of the review and given a few days to respond. Sometimes, the fact-check is exactly that. I’m always grateful to have the manufacturer point out to me that I’ve misunderstood a technical point — and believe me, it happens. But all too often, the “fact-check” is seen by the manufacturer as an opportunity to spin the review in a more positive direction. Where negative facts are mentioned in the review, the manufacturer will request that the negatives be presented in a dry, factual tone, a tone devoid of color and emotion. Naturally, they’re pleased for the positives to be presented in terms that are glowing with excitement! But defects are quite generally reported in a dull monotone, or hedged around with qualifications that the manufacturer has craftily articulated to the editor.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the word “limitation” in a product review, when what I wanted to write was something like “stupid and inexplicable design flaw.” As a writer, you become so indoctrinated by the way things work that you don’t even try to write what you really think. Unless you think the product is terrific, of course. In that case, go for it!

The underlying problem is that the business people who run most magazines (not speaking specifically of Keyboard here, but if the shoe fits, wear it) care nothing at all about the readers. To them, the readers are no more than a product that they can sell to advertisers. The readers’ real needs don’t enter into the business calculation at any point. The readers’ needs and interests come into play at only one point: The circulation numbers have to be kept pumped up so that the advertisers can be assured of more eyeballs gazing at their ads.

Designing and maintaining an editorial package that will inspire long-term reader loyalty is not important. Such a package would be more expensive to produce, and it wouldn’t appeal as strongly to advertisers. The only thing that matters in the business office is the quarterly bottom line. Once the reader has bought a heavily discounted subscription … well, they won’t be renewing their sub until next year, and that won’t happen in this quarter, so we’ll worry about it later. Right now, we need to keep those ad dollars rolling in and not spend a nickel more than we have to on paper, staff salaries, or freelance writers.

It’s sickening, and I see no practical way to turn it around. I’m glad I’m retired, because I no longer have the patience to cope with this stuff.

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8 Responses to Advertising Corrupts

  1. Greenman Ron says:

    This opens up a much larger question Jim: How does product consumption of all types influence who we are vis-a-vis how we would like to be? Where do economics (greed if you will) and ethics collide? Are we on the grid (of course) or off the grid (impossible) and how on? I’m currently supporting two major corporate behemoths (Apple & Google) as I write this and no matter how “good” they may be compared to land speculators in Brazil (for example) I know I’m supporting repressive regimes, polluters, money manipulators, and exploiters of workers right now while I bemoan their depredations. I have the time to even consider tis because I’m not having to fight with you over rights to a berry bush or allying with you to fight off some other berry bush interloper. To paraphrase one of those politicos I’m not too fond of, “Vigilance is the price of eating.” How simple it was when “Honesty was the best policy,” “you’ll get a good job accompanied by a Leave It to Beaver Lifestyle if you study hard and get a good education,” “Anybody in America can be President,” etc. How simple it is now to just ignore questions like the one you asked. How difficult to draw a line in the sand that really puts moral, ethics, and integrity in direct confrontation with consumption in a consumer society and what that means to all of us. If I had a magic wand I’d turn us back to the days of our youth where the average everyman had a little less but enough and share the surplus with the rest of the world, in short buy the world a Coke, so to speak, and then wave it again to a future where that was a level of contentment and where we’d learned to step a little less harshly on the planet. Certainly against they nature of a predatory species though so…. But to your topic: Honesty in advertising is oxymoronic and not worth fretting over. I do though get irritated when I suddenly discover that an ad has ben so effective to have influenced my decision without my awareness. I’m also constantly irritated when I consider the fact that I am viscerally a typical American consumer and buy things emotionally because I can rather than due to true need. I guess I still have a lot of work to do on myself and time is running shorter every day.

    • midiguru says:

      You’ve raised two related issues, Ron — how we make our personal decisions about what we consume, and whether a given piece of advertising is honest, manipulative, or an outright lie. In my little essay I was careful not to analyze the content of ads. My point would be the same if all of the ad content was entirely honest.

      Your other issue hits closer to home, because the whole point of the ad/editorial mishmash is to convince readers to buy products, whether or not they have any legitimate use for them. As a rough guess, I’d say that more than half of the hardware purchased by musicians who read Keyboard is pure pollution. It’s headed straight for the landfill. This problem is not confined to Keyboard, of course! By participating in this charade, the editors of a magazine (any magazine) contribute to environmental degradation.

      I remember proposing, at some point in the 1990s, a feature on how to find great deals in used gear. My vague recollection (I could be mis-remembering) is that the idea never ended up in the pages of the magazine. Why? Because advertisers want people to buy new gear, not used gear. Such a feature would have benefited both readers and the environment, but the editor had no enthusiasm for it, because it would have undercut the advertisers’ agenda.

  2. Marvin Sanders says:

    In fairness to Greg, he wasn’t editor of Keyboard until late 1999. I was editor for a couple years before him, so if anyone started poking holes in the firewall it was me. In my defense, I did turn down several bitchin’ international trips and cruises that advertisers wanted to send me on, because the conflict of interest seemed too large to ignore. Sigh … youth is wasted on the young. I should have said “Screw it!” and gone to Italy. 😉

    • midiguru says:

      It started during Dominic’s tenure as editor … and I certainly don’t blame Dominic, nor you, nor any of the editors. One of the main reasons I never wanted to be editor was because I wanted the luxury of not worrying about business concerns. I always viewed my role as more or less being an advocate for what I saw as the readers’ interests, in a complex business environment where the boss also had to consider other factors! I was quite aware that after making my point, I had to step away from it, because I wasn’t the one with the decision-making power. I was simply an advocate.

      Among the things that make it easy to fix a date for the start of the shift: Until Miller Freeman took over, the NAMM Report was not a cover story. Dominic and Pat Cameron initiated that change.

      Italy? Who was in Italy? Siel and Crumar, if memory serves. I would have guessed Japan, obviously.

  3. Richard Johnston says:

    Indeed, Marvin, I turned down a few junkets, including some overseas, when I was at Guitar Player and then Bass Player. That fact and four bucks will now buy me a latte.

  4. Phil Hood says:

    Hi Jim,
    Good topic. I love the comments as well for I think the issue of advertising and editorial is more complex than mere cause and effect. I’ll say three things.
    1. Advertising is content for readers of special interest magazines, from Vogue to Guitar Player. In my magazine, DRUM!, ads are information. They may be highly biased, but readers try to see through that. Drums lend themselves to gorgeous photography more than midi interfaces, do, so some of the information is purely visual (drum porn!).
    2. Media that is ad-supported (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio) is fundamentally different from media that is not ad-supported (movies, scholarly journals, novels and nonfiction books, HBO, zines, etc.) The big difference is that the media that is customer-supported as opposed to ad supported can handle “bigger,” less timely, more serious topics or can approach some niches that will never be profitable under any scheme.
    3. Let me point out that I don’t think your opinion of what publishers call “service editorial” (a gruesomely bloodless term.) Service editorial is editorial that covers products or product usage tips that advertisers might like. I love buyers guides as a reader, and I think newsstand sales bear out that other readers like them, too. Of course, these days I am a publisher, not an editor and I think like a publisher. I am biased toward product info.
    4. (I couldn’t stop at three). The Firewall is most important where product differences and measurable product performance can be quite serious. Technical products in particular need tough reviewers. Outside of top shelf mags like Nat Geo or the New Yorker (or the old New York times) the firewall has always been a semipermeable membrane. But I gather it has been shredded lots of places recently.
    5. We currently have advertisers who fear a review in DRUM! In one case, they fear that even if the review is “positive,” it will be positive in the wrong way. In other words, they view us as someone who will ruin the purity of their message.

    • midiguru says:

      I would agree that ads are often content … though not, of course, unbiased content. And I have no problem with the idea of a magazine publishing ads, whether or not the ads include anything that will be of genuine interest to the readers.

      I do have a problem with gear porn, however. This is a slightly different topic, but when an ad promotes the idea that the consumer’s life will be more meaningful or pleasurable if he or she purchases something, what we end up with is landfill on the hoof. Some percentage of the purchasers will be people who have no legitimate need for the product. If someone has a legitimate need for a product, frankly, they’ll go out and find the product, even if it’s not advertised. Quite a lot of advertising exists in order to create fake needs.

      I’ve written a lot of how-to features that consisted of product usage tips. But in fact, most of the products I’ve covered in such features in recent years had pretty good owner’s manuals. The tutorial features were honestly of no more than marginal value. The placement of the tutorial feature was more or less openly to promote awareness of the advertiser’s product. Naturally, the writer will try to include a few things that aren’t in the manual, but if the manual is good, that’s not always an option. Doesn’t matter — the feature gets written and published in any case.

  5. Ken Hughes says:

    @ Phil,

    This is unbelievable and yet not at all surprising at the same time, somehow. . . .

    Shameful(less) self-promotion, motivated by unemployment: I would love to become a contributor to DRUM! Jim, Marvin, Greg, Steve, Michael Molenda, and Bill Leigh can all vouch for my writing/editorial skill (behind a perforated firewall anyway. . . LOL!!) Attempts to contact Andy have been thus far unsuccessful, so I thought I’d pipe up and introduce myself to you.

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