An Onslaught Of Hidden Ads

Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) has asked at least three major magazine companies to explore product integration -- that's product placement to you and me -- of its cars into magazine editorial pages. Say hello to another indicator of changing media mores.

There's no sign that Hearst Magazines, Meredith (MDP ), and Advance Publications, the parent of Condé Nast Publications, are going along with what would be a major breach of the traditional wall between magazine editorial and advertising units. Still, it's a time, says Deborah Wahl Meyer, vice-president for marketing at Lexus, in which "ideas can cross between advertising and editorial. It doesn't always need to have the 'advertorial' note on top." Indeed, when Toyota came calling at each publisher, its execs talked up a favorite marketing coup: this year's multimillion-dollar deal that put its vehicles on reality-TV show The Contender. (BusinessWeek (MHP ) sales execs say they are discussing advertorials with the car giant.)

Toyota's notions aren't universally welcomed. "We'll sell our mothers, but this doesn't work," says a mystified magazine executive who attended one presentation and, fearing a major advertiser's wrath, insisted on anonymity. "I can't sell you an article. I don't even know how to price it."

Elsewhere, such concerns faded long ago. For a fee, companies can place brands in songs, plays, movies, books (remember Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection?) -- and, of course, television.

SO FAR MAGAZINE READERS have been spared the print equivalent of TV moments such as, say, a chase scene in which a character shouts "The F-150!" followed by a cut to the truck's nameplate, followed by a shot of the pickup muscling other cars out of its way. (Thank you, Alias! Thank you, Ford (F )!) But publishers have missed out on some serious dollars.

This is a nagging thought in the current climate. Ad-page volume at magazines last year came in below that of 1998 -- meaning the medium's recent advertising wipeout erased the gains of the dot-com boom and then some. Advertisers point to reality TV and say, hey, why not? And they're not terribly interested in print's traditional ad-edit divide. "I just don't think it represents what's happening in the world today," says Meyer.

So some standards slip. This year the New York Post's Web site briefly ran "keyword" ads, courtesy of Vibrant Media Inc.'s IntelliTXT technology -- paid advertising links attached to highlighted words in articles. A Post spokesman insisted this was a mistake, a back-office idea that briefly escaped into the real world. ran such ads for about five months but stopped last November, owing to editorial staffers' complaints, says the company. The blogosphere didn't much care for the practice, either, judging from headlines like "For Desperate and Stupid Publishers."

More line-blurring proposals are out there. Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.'s (GMST ) new celebrity weekly Inside TV is pitching one that would place a product in a photo spread identified as editors' recommended beauty picks. "Our own editors completely embrace this, as does the entire [ad] client community," says Scott Crystal of TV Guide Publishing Group.

It's hard to get exercised about advertiser incursions into photo features about shampoos and cosmetics, and, just as The Contender is not 60 Minutes, Inside TV is not The New Yorker. But suggestions like Toyota's add a new dimension to the debate, and even editorial purists concede that the media terrain is changing.

Certainly, product placement "is becoming more and more relevant to every TV show," said Viacom Inc. (VIA ) Co-President Les Moonves this month, promising a "quantum leap" in its ubiquity on TV this year. The irony, of course, is that this practice arose so advertisers could break through a cluttered media environment. But mushrooming product placements will soon create lots of clutter of their own.

By Jon Fine

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.