On Advertorial

Blitz Magazine, July 1999

advertorial

I’m standing in line behind two women; mid-30s, middle-class. One reaches into her bag and retrieves a magazine article. She presents it to her friend and says: “Look at this article on cellulite-reducing cream. It says it works.” We all look at the paper. The word ‘Advertisement’ does not appear, but it is clearly advertorial. The friend replies: ‘It’s not an article. It’s advertising made to look like editorial. You can never believe that stuff.’

                Most people know the difference between editorial and advertorial. The ploy works with some consumers but most, when they see the telltale conflicting fonts and absence of by-lines etc., know that the piece was written by the firm’s marketing department or agency. A well-designed ad with some creative juice behind it is much more effective, for the simple reason that advertorial has no credibility. If people know you paid for it, they don’t believe it.

                I’m not talking about contract publishing, which is OK because readers know, when they see a show guide or catalogue, that the enclosed editorial is meant to be self-serving. But it disturbs me to see publications which purport to be journalistic in content print glowing pieces about companies which have paid for that editorial, without telling readers that it’s advertising.

                Another, similar, practice has lately been growing at an alarming rate. A publication says to a corporate president or marketing director: ‘You give us your client list and we’ll do a feature on you. We’ll approach all of your suppliers and sell advertising around your story. We’ll supply the writer, or you can write the article yourself. Either way, you’ll have editorial control.’

                I used to write for a company whose business was based on this practice. The parameters were simple: Say nothing negative or controversial. Speak only to the people on the pre-approved list. Send the article to the client. The client will remove anything objectionable.

                There are three reasons why this practice is disturbing. First, the subject sells his supplier list to the publication. Those suppliers are approached by the publication’s sales reps. While the suppliers may not be overtly pressured, they may feel that they’ll insult the client if they don’t advertise. Their marketing budgets are reduced by what it cost to advertise in a vehicle which may be inappropriate for them; they wind up resenting both the client and the publication.

                Secondly, publications involved in this practice lower themselves to a decidedly unattractive level. When a magazine or newspaper slaps its logo and journalistic reputation onto editorial which it has sold, it receives a short-term profit and a long-term loss of respect amongst both advertisers and readers.

                Finally, today’s savvy readers are not fooled by these artificial ‘articles’. The pieces are not read. The ads are not read. The featured subject loses credibility. The publication loses credibility. People do not read publications which they do not find credible. No readers, no revenue.

                There’s a lot of doom and gloom now about the publishing industry. It seems to me that if newspapers and magazines focused on providing readers with useful and accurate information, rather than on generating short-term monetary gain, everybody would be a lot happier.

 

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On Auks and Audubon

Blitz Magazine, January 1999

Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly,

And could only walk.

Consider man,

Who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk

And learned how to fly

Before he thinked.

                    Ogden Nash

 

          When we see a guy shooting birds out of the air, we say “That jerk’s needlessly killing wildlife to compensate for a lack of, er, something else.”

Two hundred years ago, people probably didn’t think that way, but they did note that James Audubon’s favourite hobby was shooting birds — hundreds at a time. He’d then select attractive corpses, wire them into life-like poses and paint pictures of them. People called him a ‘romantic figure’, likely not imagining that he would become history’s greatest wildlife painter.

          He was born Jean-Jacques Audubon, the bastard son of a French naval officer. In 1812, he dodged the Napoleonic draft and headed to the US, where he posed as the son of a Louisiana plantation owner. He blew all his wife’s money, did time in debtors’ prison and was running a Kentucky grocery store when he saw the work of nature artist Alexander Wilson. Audubon realized that his life-long habit of sketching wildlife produced far superior results.

          Off he went to paint birds, walking 50,000 North American miles. Along the way, he identified 35 new species and sub-species and revolutionized the way his world saw and portrayed nature. He respected birds as predators and gave them personality and character. While others had shown birds in life-like poses, or in their environmental context, or in their true sizes, he was the first to combine all elements. Although he was entirely self-taught, his work is highly-stylized and textured and exhibits the realism, scientific accuracy and artistic merit of a technically-disciplined painter.

          After completing 453 paintings, Audubon headed to Scotland in search of cash and production capabilities. In Edinburgh, then London, his work was engraved, printed and completed, by hand, with watercolours. It took 12 years but, in 1844, the 29” x 39” Birds of America became one of the greatest illustrated book of all time.

          Ever the hopeless entrepreneur, Audubon only sold 200 copies. But he created a huge market for wildlife art and, while he dressed up in buckskin to lecture at such august institutions as the University of Edinburgh (where Charles Darwin was in the audience), other people pirated his work and profited handsomely. The 11th Mayor of Toronto, however, bought an original, and it remains in the Toronto Reference Library. It includes the result of Audubon’s Canadian travels, the 100-plate Birds of Canada collection, and it can be seen at the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 24th.

          Even if you’re not a bird lover, the exhibit is worth a look. Audubon left us a record of the New World as it was before humans got hold of it. In his time, there were 5 billion passenger pigeons and he recorded a flock so large that it took three days to pass. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. He reported a two-month period in which a Halifax man sold 400,000 auk eggs (at .25/doz.). The last auk died in Iceland in 1844; now, there are more Audubon auk prints than there are auk museum specimens.

          Humans hunted four Audubon subjects to extinction — there was also the Eskimo Curlew and the Labrador Duck. Some of his other subjects are now endangered, including the Whooping Crane, Peregrine Falcon, Harlequin Duck and Northern Bobwhite. So this may be your only chance to see what those birds look like. And the next time you see some guy using his shotgun to commune with nature, ask him if he can spell ‘Viagra’.

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