The Lexus campaign to place product photos in the editorial content of consumer magazines is wrong. It poses a danger to the editorial integrity of those publications in which it seeks to place product photos. It could make the medium irrelevant to its readers and valueless to its advertisers.
Automakers and other advertisers are always looking for the Next Big Thing that can give them a competitive advantage, which is why Lexus Division is asking several national magazines to use Lexus vehicles to illustrate stories in "groundbreaking" ways.
Product placements have been done for years on TV and in the movies, where they routinely include vehicles, clothing and even food. And it works. Sales of Reese's Pieces candy skyrocketed after being promoted in the film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
But magazines are different. They're not like entertainment on TV. They're like TV news because the relationship with the consumer is built on trust. Magazine and newspaper editors must make decisions about content based on providing value to the reader, not the advertiser.
To illustrate articles on various nonautomotive topics, some publications ask automakers whether they can borrow and photograph their vehicles, and most automakers eagerly comply. That shouldn't be a problem if the request is based on editorial judgment.
It may seem innocuous, but once advertisers start asking to have their products displayed with articles, negotiating editorial content could become part of the ad buying process, just as it has in TV.
Lexus and other automakers say they would never use the placement of photos in editorial content as blackmail for placing ad pages in a publication. But it happens in other product categories and could happen with autos, warns Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.
The other way to place product photos is just as dangerous and just as wrong: paying publications - or editorial employees - to use your products instead of the competitor's vehicles. That smacks of the payola scandals in which record companies paid disc jockeys to play their records.
If advertisers consider editorial placements in buying ads or pay for the placements, they will kill the medium itself. Lexus should dump its product placement strategy for magazines and find a less dangerous competitive advantage.