I was reading a contributed article on the Stone Junction Blog the other day where a magazine publisher was attempting to defend the downright misleading concept of “colour separation charges” as a way to “endorse magazines and platforms which can offer you what you need”. As somebody who has been deriding the “colour separations” scam in public for nearly twenty years, I decided to have a (mild) rant in the comments section, but I thought it was worth repeating here.
Even if “colour separation charges” were ever legitimate, they quickly turned into a way for publishers to sell “editorial” without actually saying so. And I have no problem with “advertorial”, I just hate the way that it’s been hidden, by selling it with a description which has lost all meaning over the years (“colour separation charges”) and using that as an excuse not to label it as advertising on the page.
Let’s have a little history. I worked in the editorial department of several trade magazines in the late eighties, when most titles had substantial black-and-white sections. However, it wasn’t uncommon to be approached by companies who said: “if you’re running our new product story with a photo in a black-and-white section, we’d be happy to make a contribution to the cost of moving it to a colour section”. The only additional cost for the magazine to do this would be that in the colour section, the photo would have to be scanned and “separated” into four component colours for the four printing plates. Actually, it wasn’t an additional cost, because the article would only be swapped with one which had previously been earmarked for the colour section, but never mind. A publisher, somewhere, must have said: “Sure, we can do that, for …er… £60” (a 300% markup on the cost of the scan) and when met with a positive response, thought: “Bingo, new revenue stream”.
This incursion of money changing hands on the editorial pages was hardly something which editors welcomed, but if it eventually allowed more colour in editorial sections, there was at least a silver lining.
Fast forward a few years, and printing costs meant that black-and-white sections in trade magazines were a thing of the past. The idea of charging for colour separations didn’t make sense, because four films were being made for every page anyway. However, with all the usual bravado which has made advertising sales the home of the late 20th/early 21st century barrow-boy, many publishers continued to request “colour separation charges” from companies being featured in editorial, even though the idea made no sense any more. They’d turned their product news sections into advertorial, without labelling them as such, and they’d got away with it.
By the late nineties, things were even more ridiculous. With the advent of digital printing, films weren’t even being made any more, and it certainly cost no more to use a colour photo than a black and white one. By this time, the term “colour separation charges” no longer even made sense. It was just a meaningless phrase which was used as a substitute for “paid-for editorial”, something publishers still didn’t seem to be able to bring themselves to say out loud …or include as a label at the top of a page. The idea that “we were going to run your news story in our magazine anyway, but we’ll need some financial assistance to use the colour image” had also gone out of the window. “Colour separation charges” was by now code for “we’ve received your press release, and will shove it on a news page which few people will ever read, with a tiny picture, if you’re daft enough to give us £100”. It’s been allowed to stagger on into 2012, and trust me, publishers think you’re as daft to pay it now as they did in 1989.
To those people who argue: “But it’s the only way to get included in a magazine where we need to be seen”, I’d say: “Are you sure you want to be seen there? Do you have any evidence that anyone will see your story other than you and the publisher?” And if the publication is so good that you have evidence that its readers actually respond to the paid-for editorial, wouldn’t you be better off advertising properly?