LONDON, United Kingdom — In theory, fashion magazines have always adhered to the “church and state” divide, meaning the commercial and editorial arms of a publishing house were kept separate to protect the editorial independence of its reporting. In reality, the boundary has been blurred for some time.
Fashion magazines have a duty to promote fashion products to their readers, building credibility by having a point of view on the products they choose to champion. But magazines depend on advertisers for a significant proportion of their revenue, and, as a result, many hand out editorial favours to powerful brands, featuring products in photoshoots, or giving over whole articles to a company.
In recent years, the balance of power between editors and advertisers has shifted even further. Traditionally, print advertising has been more valuable than digital, with glossy campaign imagery seen as part of the experience of reading a fashion magazine. However, print circulation at many magazines is dipping: according to research firm MagNet, in 2014, Hearst faced an 18.8 percent decrease in newsstand sales of its publications in Canada and the US, while Condé Nast was down 14.8 percent.
Fashion companies now use platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to manage their own images and communicate directly with their audience, meaning they rely less on magazines as a channel for communications. Some editors report that brands now refuse to sign off on advertising, until it’s agreed they will also be covered in editorial articles, while fashion stylists are given credit cues to use certain advertisers in their shoots.
“There’s a credit system, which we don’t use, but I know the glossy magazines use, where it’s tantamount to saying, we’ll take 17 pages of advertising this season and we’ll have 32 editorial credits,” says Tiffanie Darke, creative content director at News UK, a newspaper publisher and subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and former editor of Style, the Sunday Times’ fashion supplement. In the last few years, she says, “those became really militant” and a “credit,” which used to mean featuring a product, became more likely to mean a whole outfit or an entire page.
“It felt like everything you did wasn’t quite enough,” she says. “There were those big fashion labels that wanted you to cover every bit of news for them… almost without thinking about what the reader wants to hear about.”
Indeed, the power of a media brand depends upon the trust of its readers, who have faith that the opinions, information and products in a publication are chosen with the reader’s interests in mind. However, there are growing concerns that increasing commercial influence is stifling opinion and objective editorial coverage in fashion magazines.
“You don’t ever see much criticism, even in the in-depth features,” says Josephine Collins, leader of the BA Fashion Journalism course at London College of Fashion, and one-time editor of Drapers magazine. “I think it’s going to end where we might only find critique or criticism of fashion in newspapers, which are not as dependent on fashion brands for advertising.”
Most newspapers package up their fashion content in a supplement, an often-weekly magazine sold as part of the overall paper. But fashion supplements, whose interviews, trend pieces and articles are typically punctuated with advertisements for major fashion and luxury companies, are sometimes regarded as a “cash-cow” for the main publication, and less committed to a journalistic code of ethics.
In 2013, Style was the UK’s most widely read fashion title, with 1.6 million weekly readers. However, facing sliding ad sales and competition from glossy UK weekly, Grazia and newcomer freesheet Stylist, Style relaunched with a new attitude to “look after our commercial partners,” says Darke, then editor-in-chief.
After the relaunch, “We won back all the advertising that we’d lost, and more,” she says. But the editorial voice of the magazine was also toned down. “We stopped being rude about our advertisers. We didn’t run any deliberately antagonistic pieces about them.”
On top of increased pressure from advertisers, in recent years branded content (paid-for editorial content that covers a brand) and sponsored content (editorial content that has a commercial sponsor attached to it) has eroded the wall between church and state even further. The frontier of this is “native advertising;” sponsored content that looks and feels similar to the rest of a publication’s editorial content. Compared to traditional ad banners or pages, native ads offer a more seamless experience for readers, and are targeted to the publication’s audience.
This year, Condé Nast launched 23 Stories, a new division dedicated to creating content for advertisers, which enrols editors from its publications to do so. Tom Florio, a long-time publishing executive at Condé Nast, who left the company in 2010, points out that sponsored content has “been around forever” at Condé Nast, in forms such as Vogue Studio, a marketing division that created video campaigns for brands in the 2000s. “What’s different is editorial people creating branded entertainment. That is the big shift,” he says.
Critics say that having editorial and commercial staff working together on ads risks commercial influences bleeding into the rest of a magazine’s editorial content. But according to Meribeth Parker, a group publishing director at Hearst Magazines UK until June this year, the move “makes great business sense” and leads to better quality content which, ultimately, benefits the reader. “It is important, therefore, that editorial and commercial teams are aligned to ensure this content works for their own audience,” she says.
Another issue is transparency. As native advertisements become more widespread, there are fears is that it is not always clear to the reader when they are reading paid content. In the UK, the Committee of Advertising Practice rules that all marketing communications, including advertorials, must be “clearly labelled” or risk being pulled. In the US, no laws specifically addressing native advertising are currently in place, but The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) general prohibition on deceptive advertising prohibits misleading advertising, including advertising that misleads consumers by passing itself off as news content.
But, the wording of disclosures on native advertising varies between publications. The FTC’s Dot Com Disclosure Rules insist on “clear and conspicuous” disclosure if a post is in some way sponsored, but adds that there is “no set formula for a clear and conspicuous disclosure.”
In recent years, fashion bloggers have come under fire for not making clear to their readers when posts are part of a commercial partnership, such as a Lord & Taylor campaign earlier this year, in which 50 bloggers were paid to post photos of themselves wearing a particular dress. The dress in question did subsequently sell out, but many had failed to disclose that they were taking part in a paid campaign.
Some editors are embracing commercial collaborations. “My best advertisers' sense of adventure and story telling actually puts many of my immediate peers — editors, writers and wider media creatives — to shame," says Ashley Heath, owner and editorial director of Pop magazine and Arena Homme+.
Heath personally spent two months working with photographer Juergen Teller on a 82-page branded content portfolio for Louis Vuitton that ran in the magazine’s current issue, featuring a mix of rejected campaign images, social media material, show reportage and new images by Teller.
The portfolio — which was published with the disclosure: “This is Pop Too: Exclusive portfolio published to coincide with Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition” — was part of a wider partnership between Louis Vuitton and Pop, which included the magazine being the partner for Louis Vuitton's Series 3 exhibition’s opening night event. As fashion brands’ impact on popular culture increases: “Why wouldn't you want to partner closely with such taste makers?” asks Heath.
Heath declined to reveal financial details about the partnership, but added: “All activities were a huge success for all concerned and I would repeat them in a heartbeat with all appropriate commercial partners."
However, not all are taking this path. “There is a church/state divide here,” says Stella Bugbee, editorial director of New York Magazine’s The Cut. “To their credit, I think the advertising team really takes a lot of heat sometimes for some of the stories. And they really stand behind them.
“If you have someone like Cathy Horyn at your publication [Horyn joined The Cut as critic-at-large at the start of the year], you’re not going to tell her she can’t say what she thinks about a specific show. If that person is your advertiser, you have to deal with that fall-out.”
But, some fashion magazines are going even further beyond branded content, and selling products directly to their readers. Indeed, with their aspirational photoshoots and pages full of products, magazines have long generated inspiration and the desire to shop in readers — but failed to capitalise on that purchase intent, not enabling the reader to take next step, and actually buy products.
Publications including Grazia, Refinery29 and Harper's Bazaar already run their own e-commerce sites. Condé Nast will make its case for “content-commerce integration” next spring, when it relaunches Style.com as an e-commerce site that will layer on top of its publications, allowing readers to shop from the pages of publications including Vogue and Glamour.
“We’re not going to have e-commerce people telling the editors or the photographers what to feature in the magazines,” Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International, told BoF in April, when the strategy was announced. “It’s set up as a separate company for a reason,” concurred Bob Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast. Condé Nast declined to comment for this article.
Net-a-Porter pioneered the integration of content and commerce in fashion retail, with its combination of online shopping and magazine-like content in the form of its online magazine, The Edit. In 2014, the luxury e-commerce site launched Porter, a print fashion magazine that enables the reader to shop the products it features by scanning its pages via a phone app, or clicking through on an iPad edition. According to editor Lucy Yeomans, who joined the company after 12 years as editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, traditional magazines “left [the reader] hanging near this beautiful product.” She says: “Really, what makes sense is that you’re just joining up the past: the inspiration to the purchase part.”
And what of the church and state separation? The products featured in Porter are from a range of stores and Yeomans says there are “no quotas” on how many need to link back to Net-a-Porter. “In some ways, I feel like I have a lot more editorial integrity at Porter because I’m encouraged to shoot brands, say, like Erdem or Christopher Kane, that don’t yet have advertising,” says Yeomans.
But the question remains: if a magazine is endorsing a product and, trying to sell it at the same time, will the reader trust it?
“I think a lot of these traditional media companies are trying to figure it out,” says Tom Florio. “They’re losing their audience revenue, they’re losing their advertising page revenue, they’re just running as hard and as fast as they can trying to figure out a new business model.”
“It’s funny, the lines are so blurred now that we can do a post endorsing something we love just because we love it, and readers will sometimes say, ‘Nice sponsored post guys,’” says Stella Bugbee. “I think readers don’t trust anyone anymore."
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