Joined at the Spine

Nothing can separate journalism and advertising.

By Anthony Di Renzo

On April 9, 2009, the Los Angeles Times upset the chattering classes by running a front-page ad disguised as a news story. Promoting the premiere of NBC’s gritty cop show Southland, the piece purported to be a reporter’s eyewitness account of rookie Ben Sherman’s “unforgettable” first watch. Although the ad displayed the NBC logo and was printed in a different font, liberal pundits and journalism professors were apoplectic. The Maginot Line separating journalism and advertising had been breached!

Alas, this was no isolated siege. Esquire, Time, and even Scholastic’s Parent & Child magazine regularly use so-called “advertorials.” The resulting schizophrenia has turned the American Society of Magazine Editors into a Pirandello play, presumably Six Copywriters in Search of a Pulitzer.

Critics blame a cruel economy, incestuous mergers, and the giddy transition to new media. But closer historical examination questions these alarmist and often self-serving claims. For three centuries, the church-state divide between advertising and journalism has functioned more like a strainer than a diaphragm. It does not prevent the marketplace from impregnating or infecting a chaste fourth estate. Instead, it filters commerce’s pulp and pits but allows its juices to flavor and color the news.

Early English periodicals rarely distinguished reporting from marketing. Joseph Addison considered advertisements “Accounts of News from the little World, in the same Manner that the foregoing Parts of the Paper are from the great.” Preserving in amber the life and opinions of 18th-century London, announcements, notices, and personal ads served the same function as journalism. They taught ordinary citizens the ways of the world, managed public controversy, and provided useful information.

In the Tattler and the Spectator, Addison and partner Joseph Steele blurred the line between news and advertising. Their profiles of London coffeehouses were promotional as well as factual. They reviewed and even dramatized products and services. They also fabricated editorials from or interviews with shopkeepers and stockbrokers.

When Benjamin Franklin started the Pennsylvania Gazette, he adapted this technique for a less sophisticated audience of farmers and artisans. Periodicals, he believed, should be partisan and commercial. Accordingly, when designing the paper’s front page, he played off ads, articles, and sidebars for political and satiric effect. To cover both sides of an issue, he impersonated such citizens as Betty Diligent, Obadiah Plainman, and Ned Type.

Franklin’s example guided 19th-century American journalism. During the Gilded Age, most newspapers treated mastheads like trademarks and trademarks like mastheads.

Such hucksterism intensified in the 20th century. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst leased Richard Outcault’s popular cartoon the Yellow Kid to New York merchandisers (coining the term “yellow journalism”). George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, used advertising layout to highlight and comment on news. B.C. Forbes called his magazine “the Capitalist Tool,” while Henry Luce, father of Time, fused ads, editorials, and features into effective Cold War propaganda.

Clearly, advertising and journalism are joined at the spine, but only a quack would risk surgery. The patients share too many vital organs. Each depends on the other for survival. Without ads, newspapers could not attract and retain mass readership. Without newspapers, advertisers could not legitimize their claims.

For most of our history, we have winked at this liaison. Only during times of crisis and reform, when America becomes disillusioned with business, do we seek the unicorn of objective journalism. This quest is as futile as hunting for the Dreyfus lion on Wall Street. Inevitably, we are disappointed and disgusted.

And so we gag when Vogue carries another Obsession insert; wince when the New York Times denounces protectionism on one page and promotes Rising Sun on the next; groan when a pop-up for George Clooney’s latest film swallows an online story about humanitarian aid in Darfur.

Purists may deplore this state of affairs; but that’s the price of living in a sometimes crass, often contradictory, but always lively commercial democracy.