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.


Anonymous said...

And how could Elliott fail to note the font/design copying of American Apparel?!!

Anonymous said...

Elliott usually fails to notice anything that isn't in the press release.

Anonymous said...

It's not much different from the so-called coverage in sections like Travel or Real Estate. How many truly analytical or critical articles do we read in any of those?

Anonymous said...

NYTpicker, I think you're a little naive. Yes, I agree the columns were little more than the "hey, it's a new ad campaign" variety which, of course, is no surprise. Advertisers, simply put, advertise. Not eyebrow raising. Elliott could have drilled deeper to tell us why these campaigns were significant to the industry or consumers or even to a business audience. But your insinutation that Elliott would be aware of the marketers' use of NYT for the ads and would go out of his way to promote them is out of line.

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Anonymous said...

You were doing so well, here you go again raising another red herring ethics issue. I'm still waiting for my retraction on Pogue... you were dead wrong there, and you're dead wrong here too.


In other to have a conflict of interest, you have to have an interest (beyond a journalistic one).

Are you suggesting there was a kickback of some kind? Are you suggesting there was coordination between ad sales and those involved in the news pages?

I mean, what exactly are you suggesting?

Because the launching of a major corporate ad campaign and coverage of said campaign by those paid to cover such things is hardly surprising, or unusual.

Are you saying the times should have boycotted coverage? Are you saying only negative coverage would have been acceptable?

What are you saying anyway?

Funny you mention Pogue in this context, given your (erroneous) criticism of him in the recent past. You're right: He isn't commenting on the promotion of a product, because that's not what he's paid to do.

But when your beat is advertising.... I mean, Duh?

Anonymous said...

Pogue be critical? Rarely.

Anonymous said...

Methinks the various anonymous commenters protest too much. NYTPicker isn't saying Elliott wrote a puff piece in return for advertising. They're saying that Elliott should have acknowledged the fact rthat the Times plays a big role in the new campaign, and mentioned the ads. It's called doing your job, and that's something Elliott isn't very big on.

I've noticed that unlike a lot of other media websites, NYTPicker is very careful not to make sweeping accusations. These guys seem to traffic in demonstrable facts. We who comment should be applauding the effort, not looking for ways to nitpick the NYTPicker to death.

Anonymous said...

O Latest Anonymous, you sound ridiculous.

"We who comment should be applauding the effort, not looking for ways to nitpick the NYTPicker to death."

So we should let NYTPicker get away with the stuff it won't let NYT get away with?

You're a spineless you-know-what. NYTPicker should be held to an even higher level of scrutiny.

Say what you want about the news merits of Elliott's columns, it's not right to suggest he's in with the advertisers. I suspect he's not even told where they're advertising unless he makes it a point to ask.

Is it a surprise that a New York retailer would advertise in the NYT? Does it have any bearing on the column? No to both. Is it surprising a New York retailer has a Facebook app? A little, actually. I'd rather know more about that than whether or not the campaign being covered each day in the NYT's ad column is appearing itself in the NYT.

Anonymous said...

Response to "Anonymous" from the "spineless you-know-what" -- or, put another way, to "Pot" from "Kettle":

You really think a cheapo website like this should be held to "an even higher level of scrutiny" than the New York Times? WTF? Makes no sense, buddy.

Anonymous said...

>>Methinks the various anonymous commenters protest too much.

Methinks you need to re-read the headline.

CDavis said...

I have to say that I noticed the cozy juxtaposition of the ads and the Elliott article. I am a business journalist, and I've written my fair share of ad campaign stories, and I have to say that Elliott's was sub-par. The quotes from the folks that worked on the ad campaign were so fluffy they nearly flew off the page. The story of Gap's efforts to re-energize its business is interesting -- it should have run several weeks before the the campaign started. Duh.

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm late to the party here, but Picker, could you fix the hed on this item please. The amount seems either to be missing a zero or has a misplaced comma within it. Is it $200,000? Or is it $20,000?
Thanks for all you do.