(AP) They’ve turned up on movie listings, stock tables, and sports agate in newspapers — shadowy images of corporate logos, movie characters, or other images that advertisers see as a clever new way to reach readers.
But as more newspapers begin using such advertisements, which are known alternately as “shadow ads” or “watermark ads” because of the way they appear on the page, some newspaper editors are expressing concern that they may confuse readers and even cross the line between advertising and editorial.
Shadow ads have seen sporadic use in newspapers over the past several years, at least as early as 2001 when Universal Studios took out shadow-like ads in 15 newspapers across the country to promote “Jurassic Park III.” The images of flying dinosaurs appeared on tables of agate, or data, such as stock tables. More recently, shadow-type ads have also appeared occasionally on stock tables, movie listings, and sports data pages.
The New York Daily News, a major tabloid paper, has run shadow ads a “handful” of times, according to spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, though only on the movie listings table.
“We want our readers to distinguish between what is advertising and what is editorial,” Murphy said. “This is really appropriate when there is some iconic image that the advertiser wants to promote.”
John Kimball, the head of marketing for the Newspaper Association of America, an industry association, calls the shadow ads “a very interesting, creative concept” though he also noted it has caused some “angst” in newsrooms over whether they blur the line between advertising and news content.
“There are some issues to work out,” Kimball said. “Ad staffs are working with newsrooms to work out conflicts.”
Tribune Co., the Chicago-based media company that owns 11 major newspapers, recently put in place a companywide set of guidelines that specifies when and how shadow ads can be sold. The policy also covers other new types of newspaper advertising, including ads with unusual shapes or positions on the page.
Scott Smith, the president of Tribune’s publishing division, said the guidelines came after several months of “extensive dialogue” among Tribune’s newspaper publishers, senior editors, and ad sales executives. Tribune’s papers include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday on New York’s Long Island.
Smith said the shadow ads would run behind pages of agate, or data, where there has been “no editorial judgment about what’s on the page.” On those pages there would also be a notation that the image behind the data was a paid advertisement.
“Our fundamental principle is that we believe it is important to make distinctions for readers between advertising and editorial content, and that we do so in a variety of ways to ensure that there’s no confusion,” Smith said.
Even so, Don Wycliff, the public editor at Tribune’s flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, expressed his concerns about shadow ads to a senior editor there recently after seeing a shadow ad run over a page of stock tables.
“It’s a very unwise thing to do,” Wycliff said. “It blurs the line between advertising and editorial in an era when our credibility is already under assault from all sides.”
While shadow ads have been used here and there in the past, they became a hot topic in the newspaper industry in recent weeks after Valassis Communications Inc., a major producer and seller of newspaper advertising based in Livonia, Mich., queried a number of major newspapers to see if they would be interested in running such ads.
So far, many newspapers are still pondering the question and not sure what they will do. Joe Natoli, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said he is considering proposals from his ad sales staff that include shadow-type ads, but he said the paper has not yet reached a decision about them.
“As a whole, our industry needs to find ways to increase its level of creativity in ways we help advertisers get their message across,” Natoli said. “Each particular instance needs to be reviewed on its merits.”
USA Today, the country’s largest newspaper, has not run such ads in the past but has no specific policy against them, a spokesman said, and The Wall Street Journal hasn’t run any shadow ads either. New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik said the paper has considered such ads but has not yet made any decision about them.
George Stanley, the managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said his paper hasn’t run any shadow ads yet and he hopes it won’t.
“Readers might conclude that it’s sponsored news. … There’s no reason to compromise the integrity of the newshole to squeeze a few more pennies out,” Stanley said. “If we stop serving our readers, we will lose our business.”
David Landsberg, vice president of advertising at The Miami Herald, said his paper had run a shadow ad more than a year ago for “E.T.” under the movie timetables, an image of a kid flying on a bike. He said the paper had no official policy on the ads, but he added that the ads were “under review.”
“It seemed fine, we didn’t get any negative response to it,” Landsberg said of the previous ads, adding the paper was considering using more of them. “It’s got to be aesthetically pleasing and it can’t be overly distracting to the content in the agate.”
Brett Thacker, managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News in Texas, says he has not been approached by his advertising staff about selling the ads but says he has seen examples of such ads and would feel “queasy” about using them.
“On the surface I don’t like it because you’re cross-pollinating the editorial product with advertising,” Thacker said.
John Morton, a longtime newspaper industry analyst and the president of Morton Research Inc., a media consulting firm in Silver Spring, Md., said the use of shadow ads “cheapens newspapers to the extent they get into it.”
“Although newspapers aren’t exactly struggling to get advertising now … they are not doing as well as in past economic recoveries, and they’re looking for new ways to generate revenues,” Morton said. “And this is one unfortunate direction they are taking.”
Advertising revenues at American newspapers rose 3.9% in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America. That’s better than the 1.9% gain in 2003 and the decline of 0.5% in 2002. But it’s still not as robust as the recovery the industry had when it exited the slowdown if the early 1990s, when it gained 4% in 1993 and 7% in 1994.