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Cosmopolitan's Sponsored Cover Blurs the Line Between Editorial and Advertising

Have magazines gone too far in the pursuit of ad dollars from beauty companies?
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While any opportunity to see Robyn Lawley's stunning face is usually a welcome one, we're a little unsure this time around.

A close-up beauty shot of the plus-size model is featured on the subscriber cover of Cosmo's May issue -- except it's not the real cover. It's a stick-on cover sponsored by L'Oreal, which can be peeled away to reveal the real cover, featuring "The Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting.

However, unlike most ads and cover wraps you might see around a subscriber copy, it's not immediately obvious that the cover is an ad. The copy calls out the issue's contents ("Selfie Special" for instance) just like any cover would, with a mention of a L'Oreal contest at the bottom. (L'Oreal also bought 10 ad pages within the issue.) “It gives me twice the real estate to explain what’s in the magazine," Cosmo Editor in Chief Joanna Coles told WWD. "It’s not purely an ad. I suspect we’ve unleashed a trend.”

But is that trend in line with standard print media advertising guidelines? The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) puts forth clear principles and guidelines for print publishers to adhere to. The following is first in a list of best practices:

1. Don't Run Ads on Covers a. The cover is the editor and publisher’s brand statement. Advertisements should not be printed directly on the cover or spine. b. Advertisements printed on false covers or cover flaps should not be integrated with editorial content and should not use cover lines similar to those used by the magazine. c. Advertisements printed on false covers and cover flaps should be labeled as advertising. See “Label Ads That Look Like Edit,” section 3, for directions.

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Despite the L'Oreal cover's seeming violation of that guideline, Coles told WWD that the magazine follows the guidelines of the MPA (which is affiliated with ASME). A rep for ASME and MPA told Fashionista, "As a matter of policy, ASME can’t comment until they have seen the actual magazine and discussed it with the publication’s editors. It wouldn’t be right for us to make any evaluation based solely on today’s story."

It's worth noting that the chairman of the MPA, Michael Clinton, is also the marketing president and publishing director of Hearst Magazines. According to WWD, Clinton is also behind a push Hearst is making to generate more ad dollars from beauty companies. As part of that push, Harper's Bazaar is releasing its first beauty-themed issue for May.

That print publishers are going after beauty companies for ad dollars is no surprise. Over the past few years, beauty companies have, unlike most industries, increased ad buys in print publications, so publishers are understandably hoping to get in on that money. But are they doing so at the cost of editorial integrity?

Update: Cosmo's Joanna Coles upholds that the peel-away cover, which was created and shot entirely by the magazine's editorial team, is not an ad (note she said earlier, "It’s not purely an ad") and gave Fashionista the following statement:

As I noted, we take ASME guidelines seriously. Our May tipped subscriber cover stands on its own – it’s not an ad pretending to be a cover. The L’Oreal mention refers to an editorial competition in the issue.