Help for media watcher school-marms: Entertainment is not journalism

ABOVE: This morning, the New York Times devoted an entire page to a news article suggesting the possibility of Estee Lauder’s influence on editorial decisions at Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. The news article was preceded by Estee Lauder interstitial “pre-roll” advertising and two Estee Lauder ads appear adjacent to the article.

Today the New York Times Style section includes an article (sheepish clarification: it showed up on my RSS feed of “magazine-related” news) that, in a tone of righteous indignation, reported that Harper’s Bazzar was devoting 40 pages of an issue to glamorous fashion photos modeled by four super-models/actresses who regularly appear in and on the cover of the magazine. Except this time, they will be identified as the “stars” of a new fragrance from Estee Lauder instead of, say, the stars of a re-make of Charlie’s Angels.

In the San Francisco Chronicle today, a story appears about the possibility of the FCC tightening the “product placement” rules related to, say, a Coca-cola cup appearing on the table in front of the judges of American Idol.*

As I’ve written before — many, many time — I’m a advocate for transparency in the relationships marketers have with media. I think marketers and media companies should disclose the relationships they have with one another and let the audience decide what is, and is not, ethical. Indeed, I think they should be proud of the relationships.

That said, I must ask: Among the readers of Harper’s Bazaar, are there any who really care where the ads stop and the edit begins? Have you flipped through the September issue of any of fashion magazine? I think most readers would be shocked to learn there is anything in them other than advertising. More than any genre of magazines, fashion magazine advertising is the reason they are purchased.

As for reality programs like American Idol, is the “franchise” of American Idol not a product, itself? Do viewers care that watching the whole show is like watching a commercial for the brand American Idol and all of the performers appearing are also brands?:

When Ryan Seacrest tells viewers they should go download recordings of the evening’s performances on iTunes, are viewers really duped into thinking that was an editorial decision on the part of Ryan rather than a business relationship between the Fox Network and Apple? Do viewers think the Ford music video advertisement is something the contestants do to relax during the week? Do viewers think Coca-Cola is what’s in that cup in front of Paula Abdul?

Are readers and viewers that stupid?

Okay, some are. So perhaps they need some type of explanation or disclaimer below that advertisement for the product being written about in article next to it. Perhaps they need a big box that includes a warning that, “this article about Estee Lauder’s Senuous is sponsored by Estee Lauder’s Senuous.”

Bottomline: When you attempt to apply the same journalistic and ethical guidelines to entertainment (i.e., fashion magazines and “commercially-sponsored” network reality shows) that you do to news journalism (general or business), you start heading down a slippery slope to school marm silliness that soon makes serious ethical issues seem trite.

*I wrote about American Idol’s creative product placement practices earlier this year.