Some PR professionals are less than flattering about
As one agency head scathingly puts it: ’If you haven’t got a good idea
in your head, it’s a route to take.’
While it’s true that a few PR practitioners will recommend advertorials
as a distraction from their inadequacy when it comes to achieving
editorial coverage, this is by no means the whole story. In the right
circumstances, advertorials can be a highly effective communications
technique that do a unique job. This is what has fuelled the growth in
this hybrid of editorial and advertising.
And there’s no disputing the growth. National Magazine Company now runs
about a thousand pages of advertorial a year across its 12 titles. Conde
Nast, meanwhile, has seen the number of its advertorial/promotions pages
rise by 40% since 1994.
Overall, according to IPC, the number of advertorial pages in the
consumer magazine market increased by 48% between 1993 and 1998, to
238,000. This follows on from a near doubling in advertorial pagination
between 1991 and 1993.
But even after this substantial growth, advertorials still account for
under 3% of all advertising. This makes them an attractive option for
clients looking to stand out in a way that cannot be achieved by
ordinary display space.
In most cases advertorials are one-offs, arrived at by a process of
negotiation and co-operation between publisher and client. As such, they
are developed to fit in with the editorial style of a publication and
this gives the reader the impression of an editorial endorsement. In
addition, the brand values of the magazine are superimposed on the
product. IPC Magazines refers to this as the ’halo effect’.
Over the past two years, publisher Emap Elan has carried out an ongoing
survey of 7000 readers, researching their attitudes to advertising and
advertorials in its magazines. The main finding was that while
advertorials and ads have similar power when it comes to creating
interest in a product, advertorials are better at conveying information
and at feeling part of the magazine.
The indirect endorsement they offer, says Emap Elan head of research
Aida Muirhead, appears to be a strong factor in generating purchasing
interest. And the more an advertorial resembles the writing style and
look of the publication carrying it the better. This prevents
interrupting the flow of the reader.
Guided by the editorial
’The more you can make it like strict editorial the better it is,’ says
Shirley Hanley, deputy managing director of the Quentin Bell
’If you have big brand photos and impose your corporate identity it
actually backfires on you. Readers, she adds, feel conned if there is a
hard sell in material masquerading as editorial.
Three years ago the Quentin Bell Organisation set up a four-strong media
promotions unit to specialise in advertorials and reader offers. Recent
work has included advertorials on dietary supplements for Roche and
advertorials promoting magazine subscriptions as a gift idea for Royal
The latter campaign broke in the run-up to Christmas, with markedly
different-looking advertorials appearing in Radio Times, Sunday Mirror
magazine, You and the Independent on Sunday Review. All were very much
in keeping with the style of the respective publications in which they
So can it really be true that readers understand the difference?
Yes, says Tim Lucas, director of corporate business development at
National Magazine Company. NatMags’ research has shown that there is a
real appreciation of the distinction between editorial and advertorial.
’The reader completely understands that advertorial is advertising under
the joint control of the editor and advertiser,’ says Lucas. ’They don’t
feel, as far as we can tell, hoodwinked in any way. Which is an
important thing for the integrity of our publications.’
Indeed, publishers have a vested interest in ensuring that the
advertorials they run are not shoddy. ’Advertorials done badly must
affect magazines,’ concedes Lucas. The halo effect of association with a
magazine’s brand and the implicit editorial endorsement allows some
publishers to charge a premium over ordinary display rates. In some
cases that may be as much as 10% to 20%.
Plainly advertorials are not a cheap option. So if the communications
objectives can be achieved through traditional PR, it would probably be
more cost-effective. The problem is that there are some categories of
product for which it is notoriously difficult to get straight editorial
coverage: food and to a lesser extent cosmetics are two such
Countrywide Porter Novelli developed a series of advertorials for its
client The Greenery, a Dutch supplier of fresh produce. These featured
recipes from James Martin, celebrity chef of Ready Steady Cook fame, and
ran in publications such as ES Magazine, Good Housekeeping and BBC Good
Recipes for success
According to Countrywide senior consultant Rebecca Hindle: ’We initially
recommended the advertorial route because it is generally acknowledged
that within the food sector, particularly where one is trying to promote
specific products, recipes are a key route to success. Most consumer
magazines are reluctant to publish recipes on an editorial basis - for
example Good Housekeeping relies on the GH Institute to develop recipes
- and it is very difficult to generate even editorial snippets.’
In a different sector, Tariq Khwaja, associate director of high-tech PR
specialist Text 100, makes the point that advertorials are useful when
trying to talk to a consumer audience about a technology product. He is
less convinced of their efficacy in the business and IT trade press,
where he thinks they can lack credibility.
Guy Corbett, associate director of Fishburn Hedges, who has been
involved in developing a series of advertorials for Goldfish, argues
that they are complementary to press advertising.
’Whereas the press ads have one clear message, with an advertorial you
can put together more of an argument and use things like case studies.
They drive response very effectively.’
Consolidated Communications managing director Alastair Gornall agrees,
singling out the educative role advertorials can play. Consolidated has
used advertorial heavily for financial services client Virgin
’Virgin has run an awful lot of advertorials since it started the
business and it wouldn’t still be doing that if they weren’t good lead
generators. They’ve played a big part in the development of Virgin
Direct,’ says Gornall.
One trend is that media buyers are more frequently acquiring the
advertorial space for clients who then usually hand the job over to
their PR experts.
This indicates a maturity in the marketplace.
’We are finding that ad agencies are getting involved in handling
advertorial more frequently. They are looking at them as working
hand-in-hand with the display advertising,’ says Maria Carmody, senior
account director at Vogue.
A recent six-page Vogue promotion with BMW was bought by media
specialist Zenith Media and the content was developed in association
with a creative team at advertising agency WCRS.
Adrian Wheeler, chairman of the Public Relations Consultants
Association, however, thinks that the input of PR professionals remains
crucial. ’Advertorials give advertising agencies and PR firms a
heaven-sent opportunity to collaborate. They buy the space, which
they’re good at, and we write the copy, which we are good at. Clients
get the best of both.’
Readers are likewise satisfied, with publishers’ research showing they
often enjoy reading advertorials - as long as they offer balanced,
interesting information and avoid the hard sell. Although by no means an
essential part of any campaign, advertorials have their place and are
However, this doesn’t change the fact that many PR practitioners see
them as a cop out. Kleshna Handel, managing director of Manning Selvage
& Lee, explains: ’If there’s an alternative way to do an exemplary job
then we’ll do it. But sometimes there’s a requirement for an
That ’sometimes’ has made a number of publishers an awful lot of
CONSUMER CAMPAIGNS USING ADVERTORIALS
Last year PR agency Cohn & Wolfe invested over pounds 1m in advertorials
on behalf of its consumer clients, including Colgate-Palmolive and
One of the most unusual treatments was a front cover gatefold in teen
magazine Sugar. This featured pop singer Louise, whose tour was being
sponsored by Cohn & Wolfe client Soft & Gentle (Cohn & Wolfe also
arranged the tour sponsorship). The Sugar spread included branded
information about the Soft & Gentle range.
Advertorials were also the linchpin for Colgate Platinum’s sponsorship
of the Elite Model Look competition to find young modelling talent. The
advertorials appeared in Elle, which was chosen because it was deemed
the most ’aspirational’ title for young women who were interested in
fashion and beauty.
Editorial input from Elle led to a creative treatment that echoed the
style of the magazine. Additional creative executions were developed for
Platinum to support its core product values: teeth whitening and beauty.
These encompassed striking still-life make-up features that exploited
the white theme. They ran in the beauty section of the magazine.
The PR campaign for Platinum, with its use of advertorials, contributed
to a 15% increase in base volume sales.
Last autumn, Cohn & Wolfe commissioned independent qualitative research
from Navigator into the perception of its advertorial campaign for
Colgate Total. The research found that readers recalled the advertorials
as either a ’Colgate advert’ or ’Colgate article’, underlining the
perception of the technique as a combination of ad and editorial.
However, although readers assumed that advertorials came under the same
guidelines as ordinary ads they also recognised that they have been
endorsed by the magazine - which squares with publishers’ research on
Readers recognised the health link that agency and client aimed to
convey through the visuals; that ’looking after your teeth and gums is
good for you’.
PAYING FOR EDITORIAL COVERAGE: THE LAST TABOO?
These days advertorials are an accepted technique. The Periodical
Publishers Association has issued best practice guidelines covering the
labelling of advertorials and if these are adhered to there is little
chance of consumers becoming confused. In other words, they appreciate
that advertorials use a publication’s editorial style to create a more
subtle and discursive form of advertising.
However, in recent years there has been a growth in a more insidious and
unsavoury blurring of the boundary between editorial and advertising:
editorial charges. This is the practice of asking PR agencies and
clients to pay to see their releases in print, often in the form of
colour separation charges.
Charging for editorial mainly occurs in the trade and technical press
but there have been cases involving consumer titles. The Institute of
Public Relations is campaigning against paying for editorial coverage,
which breaches its Code of Practice.
Unfortunately, the actions of some PR professionals have perpetuated the
situation. Some agencies and in-house departments send out new press
releases that make it clear they will happily pay colour separation
John Rose, secretary of the National Committee on Editorial
Independence, describes the state of affairs as ’alarming’. He estimates
that British publishers are making over pounds 100m a year from
As much as a quarter of the British press may be involved, he
’Up to three new titles are being launched every month simply on the
back of this practice,’ says Rose.
’But the whole idea of selling editorial space can only really arise
when a publisher is not really interested in a readership anyway.’
This observation is hard to deny.
Selling editorial space undermines the credibility of a publication.
PR professionals should therefore ask themselves whether achieving
coverage in such titles is worthwhile.
Ian Houston, Thorn PR managing director, says : ’There is simply too
much money involved in the practice to expect publishers to abandon
The answer lies in the hands of PR agencies and practitioners.
’If more clients were encouraged to evaluate their PR activities and
budgets, the supply of ’paid for’ press material would dry up. It is
time that agencies gave their clients proper advice.’
Thorn carried out research of its own into editorial charges, writing to
210 trade publication editors. Of the 92 titles that responded, 30%
supported the practice. It is a fair assumption that a great deal of
those that did not respond are also engaged in charging.
’When this sort of thing happens it is because publishers are not giving
their sales teams enough support or they are not employing the right
people,’ says Adrian Brady, joint managing director of Eulogy.
The National Committee on Editorial Independence has been lobbying
Parliament in the hope that discussions will lead to action from MPs and
peers. There is also concern that the practice has spread to the
internet, with the emergence of web-authoring charges.