You may remember a few posts back when I said that the back cover of a game magazine was the most valuable real estate that a game publisher could buy. Turns out I was wrong.
Check out the below image of the EGM cover that was just delivered to my door today (click this and any other image here for a larger version).
On first glance, it seems like most any other EGM cover. There’s the big, distinctive EGM logo right there, after all. There’s a little less text than usual, and only one game featured, but it could still pass for a cover. It’s only after a few seconds of examination that the Activision logo and the “advertisement” label at the top show this “cover” is not the real cover at all.
Open up to the first “page” and find the following spread:
This is at least obviously an advertisement, but we’ve now seen three pages of ads before even getting to the real cover of the magazine. The final flip:
Another ad page, and there’s the real cover. You can tell because it uses the same logo that was just on top of an advertisement a few pages back, only now there’s actual editorial text promoting a postmortem feature on four of the biggest games of the season (none of which is Call of Duty, incidentally).
Video game magazines are of course about making money, and making money in the mag business is all about selling ads. There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling as much as space as you can wherever you can sell it. When you place an ad in front of the cover, though, with your own logo pasted across the top, you can make that ad seem like more than it is.
When a reader looks at the cover of a magazine, they expect to see the most important games or features of that issue, as decided by the editorial team. Placing an ad where this editorial content usually appears is a bit of a bait-and-switch, even with the “advertisement” label at the top of the page. Most, if not all, readers will quickly figure out the true nature of the spread, but probably not before initially processing the entire page as a true cover image. The reader has to erase this impression before getting to the real cover, but by this point the magazine name and the game name have been indelibly linked.
This link is probably a good thing for Activision and probably not a good thing for EGM. First off, the prominent placement of the EGM logo on the ad could be seen by some readers as a de facto endorsement of the game. True, it’s labeled as an advertisement, but other advertisements don’t get a large “Electronic Gaming Monthly” label at the top. What makes Call of Duty different? Maybe the guys at EGM just like it more. After all, their magazine’s name is right there on the ad, in big type.
Some readers may go even farther, making the jump to assuming an illicit relationship between the magazine and the ad buyer. A quid pro quo theory might easily spring to the reader’s mind — you buy a cover ad from us, and we’ll give you prominent placement and a good review score (Call of Duty appears on the front page of the issue’s review section and got an average score of 8.0). Even though the charge of preferential treatment likely has no basis, such an impression on the reader can be hard to erase.
I have yet to see this issue on the newsstand, but the ad appearing on that version of the cover would present another level of deception to the casual passerby, who might not be able to process the image as an ad. Again, such a misconception can only be good for Activision and bad for the magazine — I’d wager people are much more likely to pick up a magazine with a cover advertising “top secrets” to four hot games than a generic Call of Duty image.
In my view, the placement of the EGM logo on top of a cover-covering ad is, at the very least, a misleading practice that presents the appearance of a conflict of interest. If you insist on putting an ad over your carefully crafted cover, make sure it’s labeled clearly and make sure you keep your logo out of the mix.
As a postscript, the back cover of this issue of EGM features an ad for the Ford Mustang — one of the few non-game ads I’ve recently seen anywhere in a game magazine. Did Call of Duty get bumped to the front seat by Ford?