If the recent history of controversial magazine covers is any guide, Rolling Stone may get a boost in Web traffic and newsstand sales for its Boston Marathon bomber issue. But the situation could have a chilling effect on advertising.
A leading CPG marketer at a major media agency “had issues with the cover,” said a rep. “[They were] not pleased at all." Another buyer who has been hearing from clients described the reaction this way: “The general sentiment was that it’s been in poor taste. No one’s been supportive.”
Advertisers expressed surprise they didn’t get a heads-up before the magazine hit newsstands—standard practice when an issue contains potentially controversial content. That prompted some to contact their agencies, wondering whether they should continue doing business with the Wenner Media publication.
The backlash is likely to be more pronounced among conservative packaged-goods marketers like Kraft, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, all of which advertised in the controversial issue, as well as Boston-based brands like P&G’s Gillette. Advertisers preferring to steer clear of touchy subjects could ask for makegoods for this issue and pressure Rolling Stone for similar guarantees in the future—or threaten to take their ad business elsewhere.
Another buyer said that while he would still recommend Rolling Stone to clients, he would be obliged to mention the controversial cover in those conversations, which could have a dampening effect on advertiser interest. He, like other buyers, wouldn't speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A rep for the magazine declined to comment on advertiser reaction.
Rolling Stone's ad pages grew 5.1 percent to 400 in the first half of this year compared to last year, per Publishers Information Bureau. But it had 850 in all of 2012, down from 1,152 in 2008.
Even though readers and advertisers may have been surprised by the provocative cover, the story wasn’t actually out of character for the magazine, some buyers pointed out. “This is very typical Rolling Stone, high-profile, political pop-culture news story,” said Robin Steinberg, evp at MediaVest, which counts Kraft as a client. “It ultimately could end up being an award-winning piece of journalism. But the cover was viewed as positioning him as a ‘rockstar’ versus a ‘villain.’”
"While most clients, not surprisingly, will look to avoid negative association, we don’t always have the foresight into what will resonate most in the culture/social sphere," said Allison Howald, svp, U.S. director of print investment, PHD. "However, given that Rolling Stone is no stranger to polarizing content and the magazine’s controversial covers go back to the days of Charles Manson in the '70s, it is incumbent upon the buying industry to set acceptable client standards with publishers upfront." Howald, whose clients include Starbucks, Havaianas and Sony, did say that there was no immediate client reaction to the Rolling Stone cover.
If social media helped spread outrage over the cover, the fleeting nature of the medium means this could all die down as quickly as it heated up. “Things come and go so quickly,” one buyer said. “People are going to forget.”