Daily Archives: 1 May 2006

When Magazines Become Marketers

I’ve mentioned before that during a college summer break,
I worked at Petersen Publishing in Los Angeles. At one time,
Petersen was one of the larger magazine publishers with
titles including, among others, Hot Rod, Car Craft, Guns and Ammo, Photographic,
and SAIL. In some cases, these were pioneering efforts and were way
ahead of their time. Each served a useful purpose by
providing value to its customers.

Petersen has long since been sold to another company and
no longer really exists. At least, not as it once was.

But in the short time I was there, and all I did was run
typeset hardcopy from one office to the other, I learned
something about human nature.

One of the import things all of the magazines did was to
review the latest products in the industry they covered.
Product reviews seemed to be a major focus because, I would
guess, magazine buyers wanted to get reliable information on
new products from a source other than the marketing
department of the product being sold. This is logical and, I
think, something that continues to this day.

The problem was, how trustworthy were the magazine
reviews? No magazine, that I knew of, actually paid for any
of the products reviewed (I understand that an independent
magazine called Consumer Reports does buy, at retail, all of the products that they review
but I don’t know of any others). So, the only way to get the
products were to ask the manufacturers for either a free
sample or a short-term loan of the product. While there is
certainly a symbiotic relationship, that is both sides gain
by this arrangement, it seems to me that the companies had
the upper hand in this deal, especially for costly things
likes cars. I mean, if you didn’t say nice things about their
car, why should they send one to you, for free?

Indeed, not only did the magazines request free samples,
they requested the samples months before the public could
purchase them. The magazines needed to do this since
production lead times required putting an issue to bed three
months before it hit the stands. Factor in time to request,
receive, and review the product, and you are talking perhaps
four to six months prior to public release. If you didn’t get
the sample in time, your competitor might and your
circulation (and revenues) would go down because they got to
review the new, whiz bang car of the future. So, there was a
large, built in incentive to say only nice things about the

Lastly, as I understood it, the cover price of the
magazine paid for only a small part of the cost of publishing
it. Paid advertising picked up the rest. Who do you think
bought those ads? Yes, that’s right, the same manufacturers
who were being asked to provide the free products. But if an
advertiser decided a magazine wasn’t being nice to them, why
should they spend big bucks on full page ads?

Now, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to
understand that the line between the advertising department
and the editorial department could, sometimes, become awfully
fine. IT seemed to me that whatever the writers did, the magazines would never,
ever, say anything negative about a product. At least, not
without using code words to do it. Perhaps that’s why, when a
magazine reviewed a product, they would use certain
adjectives instead of others. For example, if a car was just
plain ugly, the magazines might talk about the “controversial”
styling. If the model had a reputation for riding like it had
no suspension, the magazines might say the handling was
“firm.” If the engine put out less power than a caged mouse
with three legs, then the magazine might say the engine was a
bit “anemic.”

But, people aren’t that stupid. Eventually, the clued in
folks began to see the pattern. But not everyone did, or
do. But now that you know, think about this the next time a
magazine announces its “Product of the Year” award. Maybe the
product really is great. Or maybe it isn’t and the magazine
just wants to get the most advertising page buys they can.
YMMV. Not all marketing is

based on lies
. Not all reviewers don’t tell the truth. Not all humans will
react the same way – but don’t depend on it. Insert disclaimer