Many journalists believe fashion and beauty books are easy targets for aggressive advertisers. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, says Stephanie Fereiro in the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Many journalists believe fashion and beauty books are easy targets for aggressive advertisers. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, says Stephanie Fereiro in the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

By Stephanie Fereiro

When I started exploring the idea of writing a feature on the influence of advertisers on fashion magazines, the standard reply from nearly everyone I told was a sarcastic and ominous “good luck.” I was informed repeatedly that pressure to cover advertisers in editorial existed, but that no one who wanted to keep their job or work in the industry in the future would want to talk about it. I decided to broaden my search—instead of looking only at advertising, I began to explore other sources of pressure that exist and how editors deal with them.

As I sent out email after email to everyone from former interns to editors in chief, I tried hard to believe that some of my requests would land proper interviews. With almost every reply—when I received one at all—came a rejection. For months, the dread in the pit of my stomach grew. But finally, it happened: one good interview came, and then another, and another.

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What I learned with each conversation is that things are often more complex than they appear to be. The common perception—and, I’ll admit, my initial perception—of the relationship between advertising and editorial in fashion and beauty magazines is a dirty one. But, as I learned, it’s much more complicated than that. — S.F.

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Beauty director Laura Fraioli-Keogh was working in her office at Fashion magazine when a publicist for a luxury beauty advertiser called. A major exclusive he had organized with Fraioli-Keogh had just hit newsstands, and he wasn't happy. "How dare you put someone else's product on my page!" he demanded. (An exclusive is an article that covers the launch of a new product or personality—in this case, it was the brand's new "super-groovy" artistic director. One magazine is given priority access to the story and can cover it before its competitors.) "I had put one of the brand's products that the makeup artist had used on the page, but when she went on to describe the things that she did, she had made mention of other products she used," recalls Fraioli-Keogh. Naturally, she mentioned all the products used to create the look—not just those of the advertiser. Despite the publicist's aggressive reaction, Fraioli-Keogh held firm: "It's not anyone's page but mine. Last time I checked, my card said was beauty director."

Well, yes and no—at least when it comes to fashion and beauty publishing. The fashion magazine industry has long been perceived as rife with "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" agreements that leave editorial content nearly devoid of journalistic credibility. However, this generalization doesn't account for the complexities in the relationship between advertising and editorial. For editors at Canada's mainstream fashion and beauty magazines, there are frequent pressures to cater to advertisers, especially where beauty is concerned. Like readers, for whom editors work first and foremost, advertisers are clients who need to be kept happy, says Rita Silvan, former editor-in-chief of Elle Canada. Fraioli-Keogh's experience may have been more dramatic than other editors', but it's implicit when covering fashion and beauty. "The reader had better be your primary client," Silvan says, but you're also working for advertisers if you expect your magazine to survive.

The need for advertising support is hardly unique to fashion magazines. But while other magazines may have the occasional editorial quandary over a pushy advertiser, it would seem to be the norm in the fashion niche. That should raise red flags for all magazine editors: If advertisers feel comfortable muscling in on fashion books, how long will it take before they expect the same from everyone else? And though many product launches merit editorial attention in fashion and beauty magazines, at what point does coverage clash with credibility?

"No one ever says, 'Listen, if you don't cover this the way I want you to, we're pulling our ads,'" says Ceri Marsh, former editor-in-chief of Fashion, "but people definitely let you know if they're happy or not happy with the coverage they're receiving." Often, this comes in the form of a civilized phone call after an issue hits newsstands, but it's not always that easy; boundaries are blurred, and advertisers sometimes forget that magazines are for readers—at least that's how some editors see it. At Canadian fashion mags in particular, beauty departments feel the most pressure, because the beauty industry buys the most ads. "There would be no fashion magazine publishing in Canada without beauty advertisers," says Marsh. "Fashion advertising is there, but it's not the driver that the beauty industry is," so the beauty editor is often on the receiving end of feedback from disgruntled advertisers. Fraioli-Keogh says that while she was working at Fashion, advertisers even put pie charts in front of her, critiquing her coverage of their brand, how she stacked up against other magazines, and where her deficiencies were. The fact that three corporations (L'Oréal GroupEstée Lauder, and Procter & Gamble) own many of the brands that advertise in fashion publications only further complicates matters. "Estée Lauder owns everything," says Diana Jackson (not her real name). "So if you don't make Estée Lauder happy and you don't make [Procter & Gamble] happy, it's not good."

Read the rest of the story on the Ryerson Review of Journalism's website, where it was originally published.