ASME Revises Advertising Guidelines

The invisible (if porous) wall between editorial and advertising has been replaced by a softer, more flexible barrier — a barrier that may actually prove more beneficial to parties on both sides, not to mention readers of print and online media everywhere. As reported by Michel Sebastian in Advertising Age, the American Society of Magazine Editors has just performed the most drastic revision of its guidelines since 2005, and one of the most drastic since the first set of guidelines were rolled out in 1982. The result: Editors are now permitted to collaborate on the creation of advertising content as long as they don’t deceive readers in the process.

More Rules Meant More Problems

On the surface, this revision might seem like an intolerable blurring of the lines between the “church” and “state” of editorial versus advertising, but that’s partly because it represents such an about-face from the ASME’s earlier approach. The organization has typically added regulation after regulation and rule after rule to clarify what editors can and cannot do in regard to their publications’ ad space. The strictures put the squeeze on editors, who felt increasingly limited in the range of creative decisions they could employ. But as any lawyer will tell you, the lengthier and more complex the rule book grows, the more loopholes make themselves conveniently available. Rules that couldn’t be finessed were often ignored completely. For instance, the rule against placing ads on magazine covers hasn’t stopped Forbes, Sports Illustrated, and other major publications from doing just that.

The explosion of native content onto editorial websites only made things more complicated. With the lighting-fast evolution that never ceases in the digital sphere, the ASME found that any specific guidelines they set down regarding the responsible treatment of this content became obsolete almost instantly. The only logical solution? Trade in all those specific rules for a set of general guiding principles.

A Fresh Approach for Modern Times

The ASME’s new, overriding guideline for the relationship between editorial content and advertising content is a relatively simple one. Editors are directed to avoid deceiving the reader over the nature of the content’s origins and intentions. The specific guideline reads, “Regardless of platform or format, the difference between editorial content and marketing messages should be clear to the average reader.” Advertisements positioned within editorial text should be laid out in a manner that differentiates them from the surrounding content, whether they appear in print or online. They should also be tagged as “Advertising,” “Advertisement,” or some other obvious descriptor. For online publications and social media applications, native advertising should bear labels such as “Paid Post” or “Sponsored Content.”

Editors are now also granted more freedom to collaborate on the advertising content they post. This was absolutely prohibited in previous versions of the guidelines. The current iteration, however, merely asks editors to avoid obvious conflicts of interest. This means that you’re not allowed to take payment for editorial endorsements or other coverage, and that such coverage should be positioned next to an ad for the entity being discussed. Last but certainly not least, editorial content should never be subject to advertiser review and approval.

These guidelines are enormously broad and sweeping — but that’s what makes them so applicable to the wide range of digital and non-digital channels they must address. By adopting this more open-ended approach, the ASME has taken a big step forward in future-proofing its guidelines while also giving editorials more room to find creative and innovative solutions to attracting and retaining both advertisers and readers.

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