OLD Media Moves

Forbes and advertisers: Is history repeating itself?

August 21, 2011

Posted by Chris Roush


One of the changes that has been made at Forbes magazine during the past several years is that it has begun offering blog space on its website to companies.

Such a blending of editorial and advertising — although Forbes may argue that the content is not advertising — has been criticized by some in the industry as going too far. There’s supposed to be a wall between editorial and advertising, they argue, and that wall should not be knocked down.

It’s interesting to go back and look at how B.C. Forbes, who founded the magazine in 1917 and ran it until his death in 1954, reacted when confronted with a situation where his name was used in advertising.

On Jan. 21, 1931, Sears Roebuck & Co.’s full-page ad in the Chicago American newspaper used excerpts from a Forbes’ column that had discussed price-cutting by a “leading mail order house,” which was Sears. Sears took parts of Forbes’ column to promote the fact that it had the lowest tire prices in the country. (See reproduction of ad to the right)

(HISTORICAL NOTE: Although Forbes published his magazine, the column had run in Hearst daily papers across the country.)

Tire retailers were livid, and a tire publication, India Rubber and Tire Review, took up the cause, attacking Forbes for allowing his photo and words to be used in the advertisement.

So did Winfield Caslow, who had a show called “The Main Street Crusader” on the WCHI radio station in Chicago. A day after the ad appeared, Caslow went on the air and said, “Being a financial editor, for a large daily, and a famous one at that, one would supposed that you would have quite a reputation to safeguard. Upholding the tactics of a company which established its record as a public deceiver with the Federal Trade Commission, better than a decade ago, is not the expected deportment of a famous financial editor, is it?”

Forbes went into a defensive mode, fearing that the damage to his name would harm his fledgling magazine and his reputation. In a March 5 letter to the editor of the American, he noted that he had not given his permission for his words or his photo to be used. “I must ask you to undo the damage which has been done to my reputation, in so far as reparation can be made, by reprinting exactly what I said and all that I said,” wrote Forbes.

On the same day, Forbes wrote to Caslow at the radio station. He wrote:

I cannot blame you, of course, for having assumed that I had authorized the use of my copyrighted material and my picture in the Sears-Roebuck advertisement. Nor can I blame you for having misinterpreted my actual attitude towards tire price-cutting. You are, of course, entirely welcome to tear to pieces, if you see fit, the sentiments I expressed in the article from which extracts were taken. But I object to being lambasted on the assumption that I took a stand towards an economic question which I did not take.

On March 26, Forbes sent a telegram to the Los Angeles Evening Herald that stated, “Under on consideration publish condemnable Sears Roebuck ad STOP Am exposing it STOP Have protested to president Wood of Sears Roebuck STOP Have published editorial condemning twisting of meaning STOP”

After Forbes let everyone know that he had not approved of his use of his photo and column excerpts, the criticism turned toward Sears Roebuck.

But his health suffered, possibly due to the stress of dealing with the issue. Forbes became ill with pneumonia in April and was forced to stay in bed at the Hotel Roosevelt at 46th Street and Madison Avenue in New York. Among the well wishers who called and sent letters were PR expert Ivy Lee and Eugene Meyer of the Federal Reserve.

How would Forbes react today if one of the companies that it has sold space to on its site published content on that site that ran counter to its editorial content?

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