Hugh Pearman: Show off to the readers

Hugh Pearman takes a page out of the publishing industry’s debate over the healthy editorial/ advertising divide and sees where his trained eye leads him

Do you know anybody not in the advertising business who would admit to liking advertising or advertising people? Thought not. We loathe and despise them, don’t we? We have them down as scoundrels and wastrels.

And though we might grudgingly applaud some of their cleverer stunts, we will never admit that we might for a moment be influenced by what they do.

Those of us who work on the editorial side of the consumer media – as opposed to the more rational professional press such as this magazine – like to think we suffer doubly from advertisers. Not only do we have to endure their offerings in the world at large, but we also find that our coruscatingly brilliant prose is at the mercy of that branch of the ad industry that sells space.

A lovely double-page spread might be at your disposal, ripe to receive a judicious blend of text and telling images, and then the suits – as they are always referred to – get themselves a bit more commission by selling a couple more late ads, which are duly levered into the space. Suddenly, instead of a spread, you’re looking at a couple of sticks of text and one thumbnail image. If you’re lucky.

I’ve always marveled at the tension apparent in any newspaper office between these two sides of the business. Both are convinced that the other is out to get them. Both are equally convinced that the wellbeing of the publication depends upon them, and them alone. Writers will claim that nobody will buy it unless there is plenty of good editorial to read and look at. The suits reply that without all the advertising income they pull in, there wouldn’t be a paper to buy – and anyway, people don’t read all that stuff. They look at the ads.

There’s truth in this. The reading public can mostly see what’s an ad and what’s an ed – but they don’t particularly care. The mass media is there to be flicked through. Images, and a few clever words, are what capture the attention. Nobody wastes any time wondering which side of the media fence they come from. And when it comes to the glossy fashion and interiors mags, there is hardly any difference anyway.

You do encounter some consumer opposition to editorially light media, but strangely this is mostly directed at websites rather than print. There is a lot of talk about ‘content’. There is a lot of disparagement directed at frothy sites that are all surface and no depth. People have contacted me moaning about the Design Museum website, on the grounds that if they can’t give that a bit more depth, what on earth are they doing hosting an exhibition called Web Wizards – designers who define the Web (from 30 November until 21 April 2002)?

Well, there are two answers. The first is that the Web exhibition looks like it was pulled together in one hell of a hurry to fill the gap left by the cancelled John Galliano/ Dior show. The second is that the Design Museum website has now been redesigned with more content, including the start of an archive on 20th and 21st century design history and some special digital projects. I’ve had a look and it’s certainly an improvement, though the Peter Saville Visions of Vegas digital artwork – a one-off commission – is underwhelming in the extreme. For real content, go to the Tate’s site, www.tate.org.uk.

As I sometimes explain to colleagues on struggling papers, they don’t know how lucky they are – all that white space for them, and them alone, free of the cluster-bombs of advertising as hurled by the suits on my market-leading organ. They don’t see it. They think I’m taking the piss. But I mean it. It’s one of those curious anomalies of periodical publishing: the papers with the most editorial space, most pictures and yummiest page designs are, in commercial terms, the failures. Because if they were successes, there wouldn’t be room for all that swanning about. They are flaunting their unprofitability: writers, photographers, designers and illustrators are acting as loss-leaders.

But behind all this, there is something else. An uncomfortable fact that no writer likes to admit. It is this: in the end, the ads are more interesting than the editorial. They define the times better. Try it yourself – go and look in an old drawer, peel out a newspaper from, say, 1982. The editorial is not wholly without interest. But the ads – especially the look of the ads – are mesmerising. It’s a horrible thing to face up to, but the suits are right, after all. They have the surer take on history.

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