April 29, 2011

[Dialogue] Advertorials and Objectivity

The following is from an exchange I've been having with Alternatives, a leading environmental magazine in Canada that brands itself as part popular mag, part academic journal. I initiated my first letter after discovering an 'advertorial' for Suncor in the November 2010 issue of the magazine. The magazine has published two shortened versions of my letters. My words in green.
Dear Editors,
I was thoroughly shocked and disappointed to discover that Alternatives has allowed the publication of a full-page Suncor advertisement, which misleads readers by presenting itself as a regular magazine article. In doing so, you have allowed one of the country’s largest corporations to use the journal’s reputation as an objective, insightful source of environmental reporting to sell itself as a ‘steward of nature’. The decision to publish this ad has now largely ruined that reputation in my view (and likely that of many others). Alternatives should have a strict policy forbidding adverts that dishonestly portray themselves as regular, edited components of the magazine.
Editor replies

The Suncor advertorial that you refer to exceeds the Canadian Magazine Industry's advertising-editorial guidelines. It is labelled as an "Advertorial," uses a different font and the company's logo is prominently displayed. In accepting this material, we retained editorial control, had it peer-reviewed and required that the company meet a number of requirements with regard to its approach to sustainability.
At Alternatives, we encourage dialogue among all interested parties. We recognize that achieving sustainability requires that industry improves its practices, while not supporting greenwashing(check out "Footprint" on page 4). In the series of advertorials that will be published in Alternatives and given our editorial line up, you will discover that we challenge Suncor and the oil sands while recognizing good practices.

My second response:
I really appreciate that Alternatives published my letter about the Suncor advertorial in the January issue, and I equally appreciate the time taken by the editorial board to respond to my complaint. So thank-you!
To be completely honest, I found the response surprising. It implies that Alternatives was closely involved in the production of the Suncor advertorial, and that advertorials are openly welcomed by the publication. I think this is problematic.
Clearly advertorials are nothing new; they are age-old marketing tricks. My point is that they should be seen (by Alternatives’ editorial board) for what they are – deceptive marketing tools profiting from the magazine’s respected reputation. They are deceptive because they attempt to portray an advertisement in the form of a written article. Sure the font may be slightly changed and the logo displayed, but this does not negate the fact that the advertiser (and it doesn’t really matter which firm is advertising) is trying to benefit from portraying their ad as a written piece in the magazine.
The accuracy of the material presented in the advertorial is not the point. Rather, the point is this: Suncor used the advertorial to sell something (their image, their brand, their shares, and their synthetic oil all come to mind as potential candidates), and the response to my earlier letter suggests to me that Alternatives has actually stepped in to help them sell it!
I am certain I am not the only reader of magazines who is frustrated by advertorials and finds their purpose somewhat insidious. I recall a 2008 ‘advertorial’ in Harper’s Magazine by British Airways which used the magazine’s famous ‘Annotation’ feature. The magazine was flooded with angry letters from readers who felt the editorship should have prevented the use of its own style as a marketing scheme.
My belief is that Alternatives’ advertising policy should forbid any form of advertorial…but I guess that is where we disagree!
Thanks for listening...
Following the publication of my second letter, Alternatives sent out the following call for questions by email and on-line:

Have a burning question about the tar sands?
Now is your chance to ask an expert.
Submit your questions about the tar sands and we will send a selection of them to Gord Lambert, vice president of sustainable development for Suncor Energy Inc. His responses will appear in our June issue of the magazine: In the Key of G – Music and the Environment.
At Alternatives, our goal is to engage readers in thoughtful dialogue about issues that matter. This Q&A with a vice president of Suncor Energy Inc. is a continuation of a year-long series of advertorials in which Suncor Energy is explaining its position with regard to the tar sands and energy policy in Canada, and hoping to better understand yours.
Please submit no more than two questions per person and include your name and address. Send your questions to editor (at) alternativesjournal.ca no later than Monday, May 2.

My most recent response:
As you might expect, I was somewhat alarmed when I read that Alternatives is planning to provide Suncor Energy with yet another venue to market its product and brand directly to the magazine's readership. In my view, the idea of Alternatives having a corporate executive from the fossil fuel industry answer 'burning questions' about the environmental impacts of tar sands development is akin to a health magazine having a spokesperson from Philip Morris answer questions about lung cancer.
As David Suzuki has recently written, "the priority for people who run oil companies is to maximize profits. We know their words and actions are largely guided by a commitment to shareholders, and so we consider them in that context." It appears that Alternatives' editorial board is failing to adequately consider the context in question. Offering industry a mouth piece is not a way to achieve a 'balanced' discussion on the environmental impacts of bitumen development. It ignores the fact that Suncor's primary purpose is to sell oil and shares, not to enlighten Canadians about their 'noble' efforts in sustainability (any efforts in the latter should be exposed as an attempt to achieve the former); It further ignores the way that this 'debate' is highly unbalanced to begin with (given that the fossil fuel industry has millions of dollars at its disposal for public relations, marketing, lobbying, and research).

There are lots of informed academics and journalists out there who have the knowledge and skills to provide your readership with far more objective answers about the environmental impacts of bituminous sands development. I can't understand why a publication that "walks the line between a popular, but intelligent, consumer magazine and an academic journal" would instead seek answers about such a contested issue from someone who clearly has underlying motives (no offence to Mr. Labert, but that's just the nature of his positionality; a similar critique could be leveled against someone from an ENGO).

Somewhat dismayed, but still reading...
I'll be sure to post any responses I might get!

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