PUBLIC RELATIONS: Reading between the lines - Advertorials can be a very effective means of product promotion, but there are some bad practices which should be avoided. Robert Gray reports

Some PR professionals are less than flattering about advertorials.

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.’

Advertorial quality

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

often effective.

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



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

the subject.

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’.


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

editorial charges.

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.


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