Unpopular Opinions: Rolling Stone and Camel Were Right

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It might make me unpopular, but… the cigarette company was right, and the government overreacted to Rolling Stone‘s Camel-sponsored “Indie Rock Universe” article. Back in 2007, a large feature ran as a gatefold (one of those special flip-out sections that wraps out of a magazine) with Camel ads on the outside and (strangely grouped) lists of indie-rock bands on the inside. The actual music-related content was generated by the RS staff (you can see some scans here) while the front and back ads were created by the cigarette company.

As a result of the article, several states sued the magazine, bands went into an uproar over their implied endorsement, and the cigarette company has now been found liable for fines because the ads were placed next to the illustrated feature (it was argued the piece constituted a breach of their agreement not to advertise using cartoons). After the jump, why Camel and Rolling Stone are right and everyone else is wrong.

When initially attacked over the piece, Rolling Stone argued that nothing was amiss; that the division between ad and article was clear. Camel argued that because they had nothing to do with the editorial content, they aren’t liable for any infringement implied by the presence of the cartoons. Further, they say, neither Camel nor RS were required to secure bands’ release before printing their names (as many bands have argued in a separate class-action lawsuit), because that portion of the package was an editorial article, not an endorsement.

While I get the ambiguity at play here (there may be a question as to where the ad ends and the editorial content begin in the readers’ minds), it also makes me feel like the people who got upset have never opened an issue of Rolling Stone, or any other magazine for that matter. Lots of magazines do editorial gate-folds that are sponsored by advertisers. (It’s like when you buy an ad around a specific show on TV). In my experience it’s a necessity, because centerfold content is way too expensive to justify without an outside advertiser footing the bill. The idea that this is without precedent is simply absurd: Newsweek has done them for election guides (with similarly omnipresent sponsorship) and Blender did a series of pull-outs for six months that same year. The only difference was that, in those cases, the advertiser wasn’t a cigarette company.

When I read articles and court reports about how RS owes the world an apology, I find myself wondering if the writers understand print advertising (there’s still a separation between church and state, but modern financial realities mean some careful, usually ethical mixing routinely occurs). But maybe the pundits and lawyers do get it; perhaps people are jumping on this issue and exploiting an unfortunate ambiguity in editorial execution because a) they have hang-ups with smoking or b) they’re really pissed that the “indie rock” coverage was crap (and for the record, I think it was). One thing is for sure: no one would have even noticed or said anything about this if it were a Ford or Scion advertisement (I know because it’s happened, and no one ever has).

I never thought I’d find myself with big tobacco or on Rolling Stone‘s side (ever! on anything!), but as a writer and editor myself, I don’t think we should set a precedent where artists featured in magazine articles or state’s attorneys have the right to dictate the advertising around a given editorial item (after all, the same ad would have been OK three pages deeper in the book). As long as cigarette advertising is legal (whether or not it should be, it is), it should enjoy the same rights as similarly destructive items like alcohol and Axe body spray. And, while the short-sighted goal of keeping smokes out may make sense to some, the larger implication of this decision is that gatefolds are not editorial content but advertisements. This means that, rather then the ethical separation of church and state that occurred in this case (the mix-up never would have happened if Camel had had say on what was inside), now advertisers may begin to demand approval of what’s inside. After all, they are legally liable. It’s just what the dying print industry needs: more restrictions on their nearly non-existent advertising.

As far as state health departments, I wish they’d just lobby to ban cigarette advertising (that’s really what they’re after), and not engage in passive-aggressive chipping away at advertising agencies and magazines. This kind of selective interpretation is driven by a “gotcha” attitude that’s as disingenuous as cigarette companies pretending smoking isn’t addictive. We get it guys, state health departments and cigarette companies are at war with one another (same goes, I guess, for most music blogs and Rolling Stone), but what say we leave indie rock out of it?