It looks like a magazine, but it’s a 12-page ad

Last Friday’s USA Today, which my mid-town hotel placed outside my room the day before Halloween, held a Parade-like newsprint magazine called Health & Wellness.  This self-styled “practical guide to healthy living” has an October 2009 date on it and looks like a quarterly special of USA Today.

Except it’s not part of the newspaper. It’s one hundred percent an advertising circular produced by an organization called Media Planet, which must also purchase the positioning inside of USA Today.

Health & Wellness consists of a series of articles about nutrition, exercise and other aspects of staying healthy, in each of which only one or at the most two experts are quoted, typically executives of large organizations.  Each article is in fact an advertisement for the product or service of the expert quoted or of their organizations.  Every article starts off in a general problem-solving way so it doesn’t look or feel like a phony article that’s really an ad until about halfway in.  In most cases, there is a print ad for the product or service of about the size of the article on the same or facing page, which is always a sign of what PR and advertising professionals call “pay-for-play,” in which you buy an ad and get a story. 

I have always advised my clients not to pay for coverage because it’s really an ad and everybody usually can tell.  PR involves convincing the news media that a story is newsworthy, not paying them to cover it.  Virtually no responsible media outlet, including USA Today, is involved in pure pay-for-plays, although a lot of media have paid advertising sections that look sort of like the rest of the publication, except for the advisement on every page that it’s only an ad.

But nowhere on Health & Wellness is there any sign that it’s just an advertising supplement and not a special section of USA Today.

Want to have some cheap cynical laughs? Peruse this chart of the headlines, topic and organizations quoted for some of the articles in Health & Wellness:

Headline Topic Expert Quoted
“Focus on Food and Nutrition” Get advice from a registered dietician President, American Dietetic Association
“Dessert Fans Rejoice: The Benefits of Dark Chocolate” Health benefits of dark chocolate Director of Nutrition, The Hershey Company
“Healthy Snacking: Ignorance is not Bliss” How to have snacks but still stay healthy Chief Marketing Officer, The Snack Alliance
“Eating for Your Health Doesn’t Have to Mean Missing Out” Meat is a good part of a well-rounded and healthy diet No expert quoted but on the facing page is an article on corporate responsibility and the hero of the case history is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“Managing your Pain Without Drugs” How to overcome back and joint pain with heat and exercise President, Battle Creek Equipment Company, which makes therapeutic heat relief systems.

Media Planet describes its strategy for it customers thusly: “Your advert, placed in an environment in which the reader already has an interest, will incite a stronger impulse to buy…” Translated into English that means, “We’ll make your ad look like a real story and thereby give it greater credibility and fool a lot of people.

opedge
23 comments on “It looks like a magazine, but it’s a 12-page ad
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  7. Shannon says:

    And now- for a different point of view. One- have you actually called Media Planet to find out if the quoted experts are tied to the advertising? If they are, it would help prove your point of concern. If they aren’t, well……..

    Secondly- you deride the fact that people from the Snack Association are being quoted on snacks. Well, they ARE experts on the subject of snacks, right? Of course they do have an interest in seeing the promotion of their industry and product. But that doesn’t completely invalidate them on the expertise of that subject arena. And the fact that their titles are called out gives the intelligent reader the ability to put the quote in context.

    Clearly, if an ‘expert’ says, “Coke is really good for you!” and the quoted person is the VP of Marketing from Coke- only an idiot won’t be able to put that in context. But if the CMO from the Snack Alliance (which I must admit makes me chuckle- snack alliance? what are they allying against or for? Now back out of the rabbit hole) writes on “How to have snacks but still stay healthy”- well, I am open to seeing what they have to say, albeit with my antennae up. I’m not saying that industry experts don’t abuse their position- many do. And maybe the way to make this sharply editorial is to bring in opposing views.

    Your strongest argument is that the labeling of the entire package isn’t clear- is it a content supplement? Is it advertising? I suspect it might be both. Which, by the way, is what every printed magazine and newspaper on the PLANET is- with the possible exception of Adbusters Magazine. Which, if you haven’t read it, will give you a taste of what editorial looks like with NO advertising impact- I bet 99.9% of casual readers won’t like it. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

    So, it would be nice if they would have an explanatory paragraph about what exactly it is. Maybe “This supplement is not put out by USA Today but is an editorial section by MediaPlanet who have found advertisers who support the views in this content”.

    Anyway- it’s easy to just have a knee-jerk reaction and bash it, more complex when you dig in.

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  22. paul sheldon says:

    This sort of thing is just disgusting. Real estate and automobile sections of newspapers are similar embedded advertising. I find the most offensive to be the phony news items placed by the pharmaceuticals, posing as helpful advice for any of the various stresses that are common to daily life. A phony sympathy with your condition is advanced, and the solution is to pester your doctor for a magical curative pill.

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