Thursday, August 13, 2009
Did The Gap Get A Positive Stuart Elliott Column In Return For A $200,000-Plus Ad Buy Today? Looks That Way.
In the Thursday Styles section today, it's hard to miss the four-plus pages of color advertising from The Gap -- it's more than a third of the entire section, and dramatically announces the launch of its new Premium Jeans promotion.
In the Business section, it's equally hard to miss the same ad -- this time, as a "news" illustration alongside Stuart Elliott's puff piece in the Advertising column, covering the campaign's launch.
Coincidence? Well, consider the topic of yesterday's Advertising column: a puff piece announcing the new fall campaign from Bloomingdale's -- a subsidiary of Macy's, which is among the NYT's largest single advertisers.
Of course it's inevitable that any good advertising reporter will end up covering campaigns of the companies that pay the bills of the employer. But in a newspaper that prides itself on avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, the consecutive sloppy kisses from Elliott to the advertisers stand as examples of the increasingly blurred line between the paper's business and editorial sides.
The NYT's ethics policy addresses this issue clearly. "Companywide, our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so," it says. "The reputation of our company rests upon that perception, and so do the professional reputations of its staff members. Thus the company, its separate business units and members of its newsrooms and editorial pages share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict."
The problem isn't just the ads, it's the story itself -- a 908-word encomium to the idea that this new campaign will save the suffering Gap brand. After a paragraph or so acknowledging the company's ongoing struggle, Elliott declares this "a major effort to address that," and devotes the rest of his column to assessing the new Gap strategy. He does so by interviewing executivrs from The Gap and the agency behind the ads, explaining the new approach.
Elliott marvels that the new Gap campaign is "notable for its many nontraditional elements," noting that it's using a Facebook page (wow, how did The Gap come up with that?) and an application for the iPhone (incredible!) as part of the push. There's even a photograph of the jeans displayed on an iPhone, for the reader -- yes, there is one -- who has never seen what an iPhone app looks like.
Based on posted advertising rates, it seems reasonable to estimate that today's Gap ads in the Styles section -- so-called "double truck" ads, because they take up a two-page consecutive spread -- cost upwards of $200,000. Chances are that because it's a new national campaign, it's part of even larger long-term buy that will dominate the style pages for days to come.
In many ways, yesterday's Elliott column about the new fall campaign at Bloomingdale's was even more egregious. In it, Elliott offers nothing but praise for the store's newest notion, to create a movie tie-in -- called, in an act of deft originality, "Lights, Camera, Fashion" -- with its traditional fall promotional push.
There's no mention anywhere in Elliott's column of the recession that has rocked retailers, except noting the fact that a short film Bloomingdale's has commissioned as part of the campaign is called "Recession Special."
Bloomingdale's and Macy's have traditionally been a backbone of the NYT's print advertising. Today's NYT has one full page of Bloomingdale's advertising, but often several pages fill the front section, particularly on Sundays.
To be fair, the NYT covers many of its top advertisers on a daily basis, and typically shows no bias. But when David Pogue writes about a consumer product, he's not commenting on the promotion; he's addressing the product's value -- and often gives harsh treatment to the paper's top advertisers. When Stephanie Rosenbloom writes about the strategic plans of a major retail advertiser, she's careful to offer balanced reporting.
Too often, Elliott's column seems exempt from those standards. How hard would it have been for him to acknowledge the NYT's own central role in the launch of the new Gap ad campaign? Or to have mentioned the paper's heavy dependence on Bloomingdale's for advertising support?
It's the lack of transparency in Elliott's column -- not to mention his tendency to marvel at every new ad campaign that comes along -- that leads directly to the appearance of conflict of interest that the NYT's policy is supposed to guard against. Maybe it's time for an editor to start mulling those apparent conflicts before Elliott's column goes into the paper.