‘N.Y. Times’ Ran a Free Ad for Audit Bureau: Got a Problem with That?

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By: Jennifer Saba

Last Nov. 5, The New York Times carried an ad from the Audit Bureau of Circulations that raised a few eyebrows. ABC was making an effort to restore credibility after enduring a hellish year of circulation scandals, and it used the Times as vehicle to reach the New York-centric advertising media buying community. Eight members of the ABC advertising agency director board signed the ad.

What caused the double take? Some in the industry suspected — as E&P has since confirmed — that the ad was placed for free, while the Times, of course, is one of hundreds of daily papers audited by ABC. Is this an ethical landmine?

?We have a long-standing relationship with ABC, and we recognize the importance of the ad to publishers and advertisers,? said Times spokeswoman Kathy Park. She later added that the Times ran other free industry-related ads, including three for the Newspaper Association of America in 2002.

Of course, newspapers run ads on the house for a variety of reasons — it’s standard. But the NAA, for example, doesn’t audit the Times.

ABC scotches the whole notion of an ethical threat. ?I would reject any thought that the New York Times would try to influence ABC,? said John Payne, senior vice president of strategic planning and communicationa at the bureau. ?Believe me, that is not the case.?

Several industry observers agree the free ad does not represent an ethical conflict.

?The New York Times is an ABC member, and ABC has an issue they want to address,? said Rick Edmonds, a writer and researcher on business issues at the Poynter Institute. ?They are looking to speak to that community and the New York Times is the place to do it. … I think that’s a relatively usual kind of thing newspapers do in support of worthy organizations.?

Industry analyst John Morton feels the same: ?I don’t see any conflict there. It’s in the Times’ interest for ABC to be well regarded.?

Media economist Miles Groves puts the ad in this context: ?The ad copy was signed by several major customers of the Times — both advertisers and agencies. No doubt it was considered a public service advertisement for agencies, advertisers, buyers, and, yes, ABC. While only ABC audits the Times, all the other advertisers are interested in the existence and quality of any audit.?

And, he points out, if the industry really wants to ponder the question of ethics ?one could argue that newspapers should not be paying for audits at all, since that could be perceived as a conflict of interest. The advertisers who want the assurance of, and access to, should be the ones paying for the audits.?

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