In theory, credibility is the one thing that makes earned media more valuable than paid media, a benefit that more than makes up for the loss of control marketers must accept when they choose public relations over advertising as a way to convey their core messages to consumers. At a time when citizens are increasingly hungry for authenticity, public relations should be the perfect vehicle for companies to achieve that kind of authenticity.

It ought to be, but according to recent research from Starcom USA, the media agency network that is part of Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group, it isn’t. Because the Starcom research suggests that corporations and the media have joined forces to undermine a large measure of the credibility earned media ought to have.

Almost two-thirds of consumers (65 percent) assume that the advertisers pay for product mentions in the editorial section of the magazine. They also typically believe that products featured or placed in editorial are relevant and fit within the content and context of the magazines in which they appear. Nearly 83 percent of respondents picked at least one brand mention or image that they thought fit within its article.

The survey measured readers’ attitudes toward product placement in magazine articles in several categories, including fashion and beauty, home, men’s magazines, news weeklies, and women’s service.

Starcom suggests that the researched yields “a series of guiding principles for print product placement, contingent upon the content and context of brand information.” But neither marketers nor public relations should take any comfort from the fact that consumers accept product placement in magazine editorial—since it apparently comes at the expense of any credibility that might result if consumers actually believed product earned their inclusion on merit.

In effect, consumers assume they are being lied to, or at the very least misled, and say they don’t think the issue of editorial integrity is sufficiently important for them to object. But the acceptance of paid placements reduces media coverage to the level of “free advertising” or at least advertising that is less expensive than the paid version.

“The survey shows clearly that consumers have print product placement on their radar, and that they are willing to accept it when it adds value to their reading experience,” says Starcom USA Starcom client leader Andrew Swinand. “That said, the most powerful asset a magazine has is a bond of trust with its readers. While agencies should form tighter partnerships with magazines in order to better understand readers, they should not design any media contact plan that would violate the church-and-state separation of editorial and ad content.”

And this is not just an abstract concern. A growing number of marketing professionals have been calling for magazines to tear down the traditional wall between “church and state” and insert paid product plugs directly into editorial, without providing readers with any indication that the products in question paid for inclusion.

Matthew Spahn, director of media planning at Sears Roebuck, has called for a “more creative” approach to editorial placements, “working in much less traditional ways…. becoming a part of the storyline, in ways that readers or viewers will still be interested in consuming that material.”

Magazine editors say they see more pressure from advertisers than ever before, and a former Maxim editor claimed last year that editorial pages were formally reviewed by the magazine’s ad departments: when non-advertisers’ products were mentioned by name, they would be edited out and replaced by advertisers’ products. The American Society of Magazine Editors objects, but is powerless to prevent the blurring of lines.

Starcom suggests the following principles:

• Even if your brand placement is not paid, assume that consumers think it is. Readers are predisposed to think that brand advertisers pay for brand mentions in magazines.
• Assume that consumers are accepting of paid placements. Starcom found that nearly half of all readers agree that it is acceptable for magazines to pay for magazine placements.
• Relevance is crucial to approval in news magazines. The majority of readers who deemed one ad fitting found at least two ads fitting. The exception was newsweeklies, where the proportion approving of two was only 56 percent of those who approved of one.

“This research will be vital to understanding attitudes towards product placement in magazines, and also how consumers generally react to product mentions in editorial content, paid or not,” says Starcom USA director of insights and analytics Richard Fielding. “The closer we get to assessing consumers’ overall attention for and interactions with brands in magazines, the better strategists can assess what will make for effective, engaging and—most importantly—appropriate brand messaging.”

But following those guidelines will not do anything to restore the credibility of media coverage.

Public relations professionals need to explain to their colleagues in marketing that any attempt to undermine the integrity of editorial pages—by asking for advertisers’ products to be included in editorial, or by boycotting publications that criticize products—ultimately eliminates what ought to be one of the most powerful tools at their disposal.

Third-party endorsement only has value as long as the reader believes in the independence of the endorser—in this case, the journalist or magazine. As soon as marketers begin to undermine the integrity of the editorial process, third-party endorsement loses its meaning. You can’t assume greater control over the delivery of messages without sacrificing credibility.

The only problem is that if the Starcom survey is correct, it may already be too late.