Magazine product placement, the real concern

Magazine product placement, the real concern: Stories about magazine product placement are bubbling up from the MPA convention in Florida. Don’t have time now to go into it, but the real can of worms that would open up has nothing to do with the Federal Trade Commission, but with the U.S. Postal Service. Will explain later.

Later: Sorry, casual readers of this weblog — the following is over-the-top magazine wonkishness.

For years, I’ve said this is nothing new. (Perhaps the best example of true “product placement” in a consumer magazine (and this is pure product placement) are the sponsors of the idea homes built by Southern Living as described in a WSJ article two years ago.)

My complaint with coverage of this topic, however, is the confusion reporters have in understanding the difference in “product placement” and advertorials and custom publishing. My company publishes several magazines for corporations and national associations and we are considered a “custom publisher.” However, the magazines we publish are all clearly marked and branded by their sponsor — nothing hidden or “placed.” Despite their “branding” and ownership and distribution, these publications adhere to high ethical, editorial and design standards. They are not house organs if that term implies something negative (however, we do produce some newsletters that have as their editorial mission some internal communication challenge). We do not accept “paid placement” in these magazines, but we often review products and services and once-in-a-while, these products may be from advertisers…but they are not paid for or a part of any agreement or placement scheme. If an advertiser sponsors something in the publication other than an ad (an award, for example), it is clearly marked.

So (as implied in the article linked-to today and in posts I’ve made in the past) it is not the “federal trade commission” or even ASME or a group of professors that are my concern when it comes to mixing paid placements with editorial: it’s the US Postal Service who will rain on this parade. As I have the privilege of writing checks to the USPS each year that total, well, you don’t want to know, I have found it of value to have someone on staff who is an accredited expert in all things postal. At times, it has been my honor to have long conference calls with representatives of the fine folks who deliver our mail. I’ve even had breakfast with a Post Master General to discuss how much I appreciate the men and women in blue.

So, I’ve grown to appreciate the can of worms a magazine publisher can open up if he or she starts thinking that a revenue stream can be generated by selling “product placement” space. If he or she does, he or she better download some of these regulatory guidelines from the USPS and be ready to go through his or her magazine page-by-page and discuss “what is an ad” and “what is editorial” and “what is paid” and “what is not” and be ready to pull out the pen and write larger checks.

The ethics and legalities of product placement are, to me, not a concern if the relationship between sponsor and publication is transparent to the reader/consumer. However, the unintended consequence of this practice will be a new and potentially unwelcomed recalibration of USPS guidelines for “what is editorial?” in computing the postal rates a publisher pays.

(Sorry for the mixing of metaphors.)