Turning an esteemed magazine into an ad tract

September 19, 2005

I’d been away and the magazines had piled up, so the first time I went through the Aug. 22 issue of the New Yorker I didn’t know about the fuss it had caused. I knew only that the issue was strange. First, I didn’t see any advertisements. Second, the magazine was festooned pages of hip illustrations, stylized cartoons with figures strutting, kibitzing, consuming, generally looking urban and cool. The drawings were rendered in different styles, all imaginative and contemporary, and used only black, white and red. Looking closely you’d notice a motif of red and white concentric circles, resembling archery targets.

The overall effect was confusing, as if the New Yorker had been hijacked by a gang of art school seniors. Were these graphics supposed to illustrate the articles they ran alongside? And where were the ads?

It turns out what I beheld had become a minor scandal in the media world. These curious drawings were the ads. They all contained red and white bull’s-eye figures because that icon is the corporate symbol of the advertiser, the discount retailer Target.

The affair has caused a stir because it marked the first time that the New Yorker, the 80-year-old weekly that has long published some of the country’s best literary journalism, poetry and new fiction, sold an entire issue to a single advertiser. That practice isn’t unknown, and in fact Target itself previously bought up an issue of People magazine in hopes of making a similar splash.

But it’s always a disquieting thing, since the hope that a magazine is editorially independent of its advertisers relies in part on having a number of them, so displeasing one won’t necessarily be ruinous. When a single advertiser pays for everything  on the order of $1.1 million, The New York Times estimated  the presumption of editorial independence is shaken.

Not so much with the New Yorker. It’s hard to imagine how the magazine’s articles would be corrupted to favor Target even if everybody wanted to: Would the Metropolitan Museum of Art fiddle with its exhibitions to promote Burger King? How?

Still, industry guidelines call for magazines that publish single-sponsor issues to tell their readers what they’ve done and say something to reassure them that the advertiser didn’t influence the issue’s editorial content. That disclaimer was nowhere in the New Yorker issue, a lapse for which the magazine has had its knuckles lightly rapped by the Magazine Publishers Association.

But editorial corruption isn’t the only concern, and to my mind, isn’t the chief concern.

The New Yorker issue appears amid a vigorous  you might say frantic  search for new styles of coexistence between the advertising that pays for most of the magazine you buy and the editorial content that you buy it for. Advertisers face an exploding world of media options, and magazine ad revenues are in seemingly perpetual decline. There’s growing talk of devising print equivalents to product placements, the squalid practice of finagling brands onto entertainment programs in the hope that millions of Americans will want the same breakfast cereal that Tony Soprano eats.

What the New Yorker issue offered was the seamless integration of a peddler’s promotional imagery into the most prestigious editorial environment U.S. periodicals publishing has to offer.

It was impossible to distinguish Target’s ads from the stories and cartoons offered by the magazine’s editors. That confusion, apparently, was deliberate. The ads weren’t labeled, and their visual sophistication made them entirely plausible as commissioned editorial art, unless you played “Where’s Waldo?” and looked for the bull’s-eye corporate logo.

Suppose that instead of illustrations, the next advertiser decides to use poems, for which the New Yorker is the country’s pre-eminent venue, and peppers the issue with promotional poetry. Or artsy photography. Remember, advertisements don’t have to advertise anything anymore; promoting the advertiser may be enough. Who would have thought a clothier like Benetton would become a trendsetter by building a marketing campaign around pictures of human misery?

The bottom line is that the New Yorker’s deal with Target transformed the look and feel of the country’s most highly regarded magazine into a promotional vehicle for a retail chain. It was a modish and tasteful vehicle, lovingly designed and lavished with top-shelf flourishes. But it was no longer the magazine I revere. And where Target goes, can Wal Mart be far behind?

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