National Enquirer Unlikely to Lose Advertisers Following Alleged Blackmail Attempts Against Jeff Bezos

Industry experts say that if legal action is taken, however, that might change

David Pecker poses with actress Alexandra Kazan. Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

It remains to be seen whether advertisers will care as much as everyone else did about what Jeff Bezos had to say about The National Enquirer yesterday. But that might be a different story if legal action is taken against the publisher.

With presumptuous headlines like Prince Harry telling his brother “It’s Hell at Home!” or profiles on business leaders detailing “What These Billionaires Are Hiding!” The National Enquirer has managed to maintain advertisers despite operating under extremely questionable ethical circumstances.

American Media, Inc. (AMI), the parent company of The National Enquirer and other titles like Us Weekly, Star, OK!, In Touch and Life & Style, released a statement today that didn’t deny the company tried to blackmail Bezos. Instead, it said it stood by the so-called reporting into his alleged affair and that it would launch a full investigation into Bezos’ claims.

The statement didn’t convince at least one former employee.

“Who in their right mind would ever believe that statement?” asked Stu Zakim, who used to be the spokesperson for AMI.

Zakim said he initially laughed when he read Bezos’ post, which detailed the communication his lawyers had with AMI. “When did common sense leave the roost? You don’t go after the richest man in the world and bully him and not expect to get exposed,” Zakim said.

“Louche” behavior is to be expected from The National Enquirer and its parent company, which is its brand equity, said Brian Sheehan, professor of advertising at SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, in an email.

But the serious crimes waged against the company might take it to a different level, he noted. “It is much harder for advertisers to turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior without tainting their own brands,” Sheehan said.

With a newsstand price at $4.99, it’s unclear how much the publisher relies on advertising over paid subscriptions. Far more people pick it up on the newsstands (151,866, according to a six-month average that ended in December last year) than have a subscription, which was 66,194 for the same time period, as calculated by the Alliance for Audited Media.

The tabloid has a particular way of formatting its ads so that, at first glance, they could be mistaken for articles. Those advertisers for its Feb. 29 issue include liver cleanser pills from Liver Doctor, Reassure overnight underwear and a diet book with vinegar recipes from James Direct, Inc. Other advertisers, like Omaha Steaks, have previously advertised in the tabloid. None of these companies returned requests for comment.

“Those are not brands that are interested in managing a prestigious image,” said Tom Meyvis, professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “Those brands also do not want to be associated with an immoral media company if people do indeed see it as such.”

What might set this situation apart from other times AMI and its CEO David Pecker have gotten into hot water is the serious legal ramifications that could come out of Bezos’ allegations.

Pecker and AMI were given protection after President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws after he helped arrange payment with Pecker to a former Playboy model. But sources told the Associated Press that prosecutors were probing whether American Media violated that cooperation agreement. If further legal action is taken, advertisers might feel inclined to act.

“At what point do more supermarkets [and] advertisers say enough is enough?” Raju Narisetti, director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship Program in Economics and Business Journalism at Columbia University.

@SaraJerde Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.