When Esquire Editor in Chief Edward Kosner abruptly killed a short story about a gay man who writes college term papers in exchange for sex, he sought to calm the ensuing uproar by declaring he was simply exercising his editorial prerogative.
What he didn’t say was that he acted after Esquire’s publisher warned him she believed Chrysler Corp. would pull four pages of badly needed advertisements if the story ran. She had reason to worry: Last year, Chrysler’s ad agency sent Esquire and more than 100 other magazines an extraordinary letter. It demonstrated the sweeping new influence large advertisers are demanding, and receiving, from the nation’s biggest magazines.
“In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler Corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive,” read the Jan. 30, 1996, letter from Chrysler’s ad agency PentaCom, a unit of Omnicom Group Inc.’s BBDO Worldwide. “Each and every issue that carries Chrysler advertising requires a written summary outlining major theme/articles appearing in upcoming issues. These summaries are to be forwarded to PentaCom prior to closing in order to give Chrysler ample time to review and reschedule if desired.”
Chrysler is just one of a host of major advertisers that are wielding their economic clout to change the rules of magazine publishing. While it isn’t unusual for companies to avoid advertising in publications they deem offensive, or to pull ads after a magazine runs something objectionable, Chrysler and many others are going much further: demanding advance warnings about stories.
Colgate-Palmolive Co. sends its agencies guidelines forbidding them from running ads in magazine issues with “offensive” sexual content or material the company “considers antisocial or in bad taste.” Michael Samet, media director at Colgate’s lead agency, Young & Rubicam Inc.’s Young & Rubicam Advertising, says the agency has a “protocol” he won’t describe to make sure every magazine carrying Colgate’s ads honors its rules.
When publications don’t follow the rules, advertisers can be quick to react. Ford Motor Co. yanked ads from the New Yorker when the magazine failed to alert it about a June 1995 article containing a four-letter word. In response, the New Yorker set up a formal system to warn about 50 companies on a “sensitive advertiser list” about articles that might offend.
Big advertisers have always tried to influence the contents of magazines, and every other medium. The American Society of Magazine Editors has adopted guidelines aimed at making sure that advertising doesn’t look like editorial features. But there isn’t any policy to prevent magazines from giving advertisers advance warnings about stories.
Moreover, shifts in the media and marketing landscape are changing the power dynamics. The merger boom has consolidated advertising dollars in the hands of a shrinking number of marketers, even as an explosion of new magazines creates cutthroat competition among ad sellers. At the same time, more and more magazines are venturing into long-forbidden subject matter about sex and violence, spurring condemnations and boycotts, primarily from conservative advocacy groups.
The result: Magazines now face a dizzying list of demands from their biggest advertisers. “We don’t like violence or anything controversial,” says Mary Beth Johnson, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Ameritech Corp., who says the Chicago telecommunications company has magazines on notice that they need to give warnings. “We would stay away from anything that had questionable sexual situations,” says William Pate, vice president of advertising for BellSouth Corp., Atlanta, which also expects heads-up notices.
Sports Illustrated sometimes provides warnings to advertisers on sensitive articles. But it didn’t give any warnings in advance of an article that described how the Nabisco Dinah Shore golf tournament in Palm Springs has become an unofficial “spring break” for an estimated 20,000 lesbians. The article appeared in the Golf Plus supplement of the magazine’s April 7 issue. Golf-ball maker Titleist & Foot-Joy Worldwide, a unit of American Brands Inc., told the Time Warner Inc. magazine that the article was “inexcusable,” and said it will cancel more than $1 million in advertising.
For several years, tobacco and alcohol advertisers have demanded warnings about articles that have anything to do with people who abuse their products. After People magazine warned advertisers that it was putting the hard-living rocker Jerry Garcia on its cover after his death in 1995, several cigarette companies and virtually every alcohol advertiser pulled their ads from the issue, says Publisher Nora McAniff.
The publisher says concern for the sensibilities of tobacco advertisers has even crept into People’s editorial practices. “We would try not to mention the brand” favored by a heavy smoker who died of cancer, she says. However, People’s managing editor, Carol Wallace, says the magazine has no rule about mentioning cancer victims’ cigarette brands: “If a guy’s chain-smoked Camels, we would say he chain-smoked Camels.”
To accommodate advertisers, some magazines are knocking down the once-sacred walls that separate their advertising and editorial sides. At the New Yorker, owned by Advance Publications Inc., the gulf between “church” and “state” used to be so great that the advertising sales staff didn’t know what articles were going to be in future issues. That changed after a “Talk of the Town” piece about rock and rap music in its June 12, 1995, issue. The article, adjacent to a full-page ad from Ford’s Mercury division, quoted seven lines of sexually explicit lyrics from the group Nine Inch Nails.
The story outraged executives at Ford, which says it expects every magazine that runs its ads to give advance warning about potentially offensive material. “We have agreements with all the major magazines we do business with,” says Robert Mancini, who is responsible for buying Ford’s magazine ads as a senior partner for New York-based J. Walter Thompson agency, a unit of WPP Group. “Every time we place an ad, we remind people of our conditions.”
The result: Ford pulled all its Lincoln and Mercury ads from the New Yorker for the next six months, a serious blow to the magazine since the brands had been major advertisers. New Yorker President Thomas Florio says an ad salesman had incorrectly led Ford to believe it would receive warnings about provocative articles.
After the Ford blowup, Mr. Florio says he created the sensitive advertiser list. He and his staff now also offer warnings to other advertisers who might be offended by New Yorker articles.
“It’s not church and state, it’s an ecosystem,” Mr. Florio says. “If advertisers are allowed to influence material, it’s like dumping toxic waste into the environment. But if writers and editors are going to publish things that are constantly going to offend the clients that make it possible to publish the magazine, they will not have the environment that allows them to publish the magazine.”
The system has the wary blessing of New Yorker Editor Tina Brown. “If an advertiser has made it very plain that it would be embarrassed about something, I think it’s OK [to give notice about an article], as long as we make it very clear that we aren’t changing it,” she says, adding that she has never changed a word in the magazine to suit an advertiser.
The flap involving Esquire and Chrysler, considered one of the most sensitive of all advertisers, offers a stark look at how the new game can work.
The auto giant spent about $270 million to advertise in more than 100 U.S. magazines in 1996, making it the fifth-largest buyer of magazine ads. Last year, its media-buying agency, PentaCom, sent the magazines its letter asking for warnings on provocative or offensive content. It also asked that a representative of every magazine co-sign the letter and send it back.
“Our whole contention is that when you are looking at a product that costs $22,000, you want the product to be surrounded by positive things,” says PentaCom Chief Executive David C. Martin. “There’s nothing positive about an article about child pornography.”
Mr. Martin says he has conducted focus-group research that concluded Chrysler owners aren’t offended when they learn the company’s ads appear in magazines that contain “provocative or offensive” content. Nevertheless, he says activists who initiate letter-writing campaigns and product boycotts can change that. “The special-interest groups don’t care about anything but striking a blow for their cause,” he says, noting how readily such groups threaten to boycott advertisers on television shows they consider offensive.
Mr. Martin says he doesn’t expect magazines to send literally every editorial lineup for each issue that carries a Chrysler ad, as the letter says. But he considers the letter’s demand for advance warnings to be binding on all the magazines, even those that didn’t send back a signed copy, which many didn’t. “If they read the letter and they don’t come back saying they won’t do it, I assume they’re going to do it,” he says.
Among the magazines that refused to sign the letter is Vanity Fair. “I couldn’t do that; I couldn’t comply,” says Mitchell Fox, publisher of the magazine, owned by Advance Publications. However, he says he does provide warnings to advertisers, including Chrysler, about potentially offensive articles.
Senior officials from Chrysler and PentaCom meet every Thursday morning to review advertising plans and the editorial content of recently published magazines. They take special note of any magazines that print offensive articles without advance warning. One-time violations are sometimes excused, but repeated breaches aren’t, and they often result in six-month suspensions, Mr. Martin says. “At least twice a year we have had to take a magazine off the buy list,” he says, adding that two magazines he won’t name have been repeat offenders.
“My edicts don’t mean anything if I don’t impose them,” he says. “We are not trying to impinge on their editorial integrity, but we want to make sure they get the message. They made a deal. When they accept our order, they accept our conditions.”
One magazine on the mailing list for Chrysler’s letter was Esquire. Publisher Valerie Salembier badly wanted to keep Chrysler’s ads, because the Hearst Corp. magazine has been in a serious advertising slump. Esquire had 609 pages of advertising in 1996, down from a recent high of 878 in 1993, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
The April 1997 issue offered a small sign of progress. With four full pages from Chrysler, it had 53.86 pages of ads, compared with 51.87 pages in the April 1996 issue, the first year-to-year improvement since September 1996, according to the Media Information Newsletter, a trade publication.
But there was a problem. Plans for the April issue included a 16-page layout of a short story titled “The Term Paper Artist” written by David Leavitt, best-known for his gay-themed novel “The Lost Language of Cranes.” At 20,000 words, it was going to be one of the longest works of fiction Esquire had ever run. And it was sprinkled with scenes some might find offensive or provocative: a marijuana-laced flirtation, a few explicit sexual encounters, and a handful of four-letter words.
On Feb. 5, with the Leavitt story already in page proofs, Ms. Salembier and several top Esquire editors met in editor Kosner’s spacious office. Ms. Salembier was blunt: She hadn’t talked to Chrysler, but she would have to warn the company about the story, and once she did she believed Esquire would lose the ads.
According to Will Blythe, the magazine’s literary editor and one of the attendees at the meeting, Mr. Kosner asked whether Mr. Leavitt might replace a number of explicit terms in the story. Mr. Blythe, whose account is confirmed by others who attended the meeting, says he thought Mr. Leavitt was unlikely to agree, and the idea was dropped.
Later, Mr. Blythe says he suggested that Mr. Leavitt’s story could be switched to the May issue; but Ms. Salembier, after checking the list of advertisers for May, said that wouldn’t work either. Chrysler advertised in that issue, too. Ms. Salembier didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this article.
Mr. Blythe says Mr. Kosner concluded that the only way to avoid making the call to Chrysler was to kill the story (Mr. Leavitt was paid in full for the piece). Soon after the meeting, Mr. Blythe quit Esquire in protest. The incident sparked a flurry of articles and magazine-industry gossip.
Mr. Kosner, an industry veteran who was previously the top editor of Newsweek and New York magazines, says that advertising concerns had nothing to do with his decision. He declines to discuss details of the Feb. 5 meeting, but says: “Obviously, when someone raises a concern — whether it’s about the reaction of readers, advertisers, or an advertiser in particular — it causes you to revisit the whole question.”
PentaCom’s Mr. Martin and Chrysler say they didn’t know anything about Mr. Leavitt’s story in advance, and that they didn’t do anything to prevent its publication. However, they say the magazine would have been required to give Chrysler advance warning about the Leavitt story — and that Esquire was right to worry. “If there was graphic sex, we would have pulled out of that issue because of our established guidelines,” Chrysler spokeswoman Terri Houtman says.
Ford’s one-page ad in the April issue might have been a casualty, too. Mr. Mancini says the magazine would have been required to provide advance notice about Mr. Leavitt’s story. “If it had very explicit sex scenes or a lot of four-letter words, we would have pulled out of the issue,” he adds.
“Ford is very concerned about the environment it is part of,” Mr. Mancini says. “If you’re a major company and you do business with a number of constituencies, it’s in your best interest not to offend any group.”