A century-old “New Model”: If one accepts the definition of the word “adage” as being a saying that embodies a common observation, I guess it is no coincidence that this essay by Randall Rothenberg appears on a website with the URL “adage.com.” For in this essay, Rothenberg makes several conclusions based on his and others’ common observations rather than on historic fact and context. That observational conclusion is that “sponsored” or “corporate-published” magazines are a new phenomenon that needs to earn a measure of legitimacy before it can be taken seriously by readers and advertisers.
Ironically, I concur with Rothenberg’s conclusions (he thinks custom magazines can be legitimate), yet I am astounded by his (and apparently, the AdAge editor’s) complete disregard for the history of customer magazines, or as we call them today in the U.S., custom magazines. Rothenberg uses Kurt Andersen’s appointment as editor of Benetton’s Colors Magazine as an opportunity to offer his opinion that this is a chance for the “form” (custom publishing) to achieve “legitimacy.” (I had already predicted that Anderson’s appointment would generate this type of coverage, which is welcomed.)
Contrary to Rothenberg’s personal observation, sponsored, corporate, customer magazines have been a part of the media mix since the beginning of the modern mass-advertising era — for well over 100 years. We’re not, as Rothenberg believes, in any transition period and customer magazines are not a “new model.”
In this weblog, I have made several references to the long history of the American customer magazine. Several years ago, I ran across a reference to what I believe to be the oldest continuously published customer magazine, the Furrow, published since the 1890s by the John Deere Company. Last year, I noted that the Smithsonian’s exhibit of American flag-adorned magazine covers from July, 1942, was filled with examples of customer magazines. As the campaign to encourage magazines to display the American flag was endorsed by the Magazine Publishers Association, it appears that such “sponsored” or “corporate” magazines were accepted as “legitimate” in that long-ago, pre-Whittle period.
Despite what Rothenberg’s lack of historical context leads him to conclude, consumers have absolutely NO problem with whether or not a magazine is “sponsored” or is “infotainment” or is, for that matter, “company propaganda.” Magazine readers will disregard crap from whatever the source and will accept it with the legitimacy they deem appropriate in direct proportion to the quality of the magazine and their relationship with the subject featured.
Adage or not, custom publishing is nothing new and its legitimacy was established long ago. That said, each new issue of every magazine whether sponsored or not, must earn anew its legitimacy, respect and authority…and one way to do so is to start with accuracy.