And then, if glory ever does by chance come my way, I’ll pay no tribute to Caesar, because the merit will be my own. In short, I will never be like that wretched ivy. Whether I rise very high or not, I am content because I climb alone!–Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand
When you are on the staff of a magazine, you will eventually (and sooner rather than later) be given the most magical of all writing assignments: the advertorial*.
My first was for a gadget that let you print out labels for boxes. It had a built-in bar code scanner that transmits information to your computer network so you can track that particular box. Boring stuff, really, but it was my first assignment and I wanted to make a good impression, so I gussied up that doodad with 800 words that basically said: This is a cool new thing and you need it. Words like “innovative” and “dynamic” were probably thrown in the mix at some point just for the look of it.
It gets marginally worse. Articles on travel (to places like India, and not by the magazine I worked for) have been written after an all-expenses-paid trip online to the Wikipedia entry on India and various travel blogs. Magazine writers have made much ado about resorts, hotels, and pretty much whatever product and advertiser is selling, and that ado is often made sight unseen. Sometimes, magazines send a photograph for pictures of the event and to pick up the press release that will later be rewritten or published as is.
My gravest sin was putting a Cebu dateline on an advertorial for a hotel there. It was not a complete lie: the article was written in Cebu while I was working on some other (legit) story. I was put up in a different hotel, but only for a few hours, so there was not much to write about.
Sound sleep is had by all because advertorials keep the publication afloat, and that means you get to keep your job and keep writing. The alternative being not being able to sleep at all for lack of a house and of food to silence the rumblings in your belly.
And from that, it is just a few steps down the slippery slope to mentioning advertisers in the editorial, an adver-editorial**, in the middle of a generic rant against corruption, the inefficiency of government, and the destruction of the environment. Awkward product placement that will make even a rookie aspiring newsman cringe, not just at the skeeviness of it but also at the lack of style that it is done.
My last advertorial, and the one that had me updating my CV, was for a mall. There was actual legwork involved, so it should not have been so bad. I cringed at being introduced as the company’s best writer. It was less an acknowledgement of my abilities and more of a come-on for the advertiser, I felt. It was the job, though, and I dutifully asked questions, took notes, and sat through a long and unncecessary lecture on the political views of the client.
That done, I put the advertorial on my queue of stories to work on until Marketing began bugging me about it. “The client needs to see it so it can be approved,” they said, violating the supposed separation between Editorial and Marketing and waking me up to the fact that I had pretty much sold out for a few thousand pesos a month. Up until then, I worked under the illusion that I answered to an editor and not to clients. Which, really, was just me being naive. I had been involved in everything from copyediting to layout to cover design and had had to rewrite copy from press releases for actual ads. I’d attended the product launches and the dinners. I’d brought home the swag.
I guess I’d always known that, and my boss at the time had made it very clear that I was not working for a newspaper anymore and trade publishing has a different set of rules (probably a direct quote). But it was a different thing altogether to hear it said out loud.
And so I switched jobs and now report on Philippine politics where at least I know when I am being bought.***
* Advertorials are a standard industry practice and are really not that bad as long as they are clearly marked as advertorials. Also, there have been commissioned articles that were written and researched well and do not really qualify as advertorials as such. Why, if some magazine were to commission me for an article, I would not turn up my nose at them.
** Adver-editorials are not and should not be standard industry practice. That’s not even an actual word.
*** As my long past due utility bills and absurdly low purchasing power will show, I am a paid hack only in the sense that I have a salary and as an indicator of writing skill.