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That disturbing fact became clear in late June, when USA Today published a separate, two-page version of the paper for pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome.
As shown in the illustration, the "special promotional edition" used USA Today's trademarked logo, typefaces, colors, and layouts. Each "article" was actually a piece of marketing information about Glaxo's AIDS remedies, written by Glaxo staff.
Almost all the paper's phony news stories quote Glaxo officials as sources. One of the front-page "articles" actually refered to the edition as "this page of USA Today," thereby encouraging readers to accept the ad copy as if it were the newspaper.
When informed of these promotional editions, many journalists, including some at USA Today, were appalled. "You don't mislead readers, and selling the logo is probably the most misleading thing you can do," says Eugene Roberts, the veteran former high-level editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, now teaching at the University of Maryland. "It puts a highly visible stamp on the page and says to the reader, 'This is today's newspaper.' "
USA Today spokesperson Steve Anderson insists that the papers "went to great pains" to mark the editions as promotional. But the slash across the top was so small--seven-point type, compared to the logo's 72-point type--that, according to Glaxo Wellcome spokesperson Mary Fay Dark, many readers read quite far into the "paper" before realizing the entire edition was an ad.
Roberts dismisses the attempt at a disclaimer. "If you have to go to fine print to find out it isn't the real paper, that's a problem," he tells my Voice colleague Mark Schoofs. "You shouldn't have to read a newspaper like an insurance policy."
The Glaxo USA Today was distributed last month at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva. Some 6000 copies were wrapped around the European edition of the paper and delivered to conference attendees at major Geneva hotels.
This was a tremendous marketing boost for Glaxo before an ideally targeted audience. Glaxo manufactures two major AIDS-treatment drugs, including AZT, the first approved AIDS treatment, and has others awaiting regulatory approval; the company's annual sales of AIDS-treatment drugs amount to nearly $500 million. Glaxo is now engaged in what a company executive called a "market war" with Bristol-Myers Squibb for AIDS-treatment remedies.
For the rest of the weeklong conference, USA Today's medical reporter, Steve Sternberg, had to endure colleagues and sources thrusting the "newspaper" at him and asking him whether his paper had sold out.
The paper maintains that it hasn't, partly because USA Today gives away such promotional editions as a "value-added" premium to any company that commits to an undisclosed level of advertising.
USA Today has provided this service "a couple of hundred times" since 1982 for a wide variety of advertisers, newspaper spokesperson Anderson explains. According to Glaxo, USA Today brought them at least three other special editions--produced for Philips Lighting, Disney World, and a cruise-ship line--to entice the drug company to go with the idea.
Glaxo didn't need much coaxing. "It's a very innovative tool that USA Today has come up with," says Glaxo's Dark. Would Glaxo use it again? "Yes."
Tailoring a special edition for a single advertiser smashes the wall between editorial and advertising departments that most quality American newspapers strive to preserve. The fact that USA Today has repeatedly created these promotional editions "makes this all the more alarming," says Roberts. "It does not seem to be a case of the ad department raging out of control in a single case and not informing anyone, but rather it seems to be a definite practice--and it's a bad practice."
Roberts says that once the wall is down "and the advertising people have been told they can sell something, you just have a devil of a time in the newsroom trying to reverse that practice. And basically only the highest level of a newspaper or corporation can do it."
USA Today's Anderson counters that the circulation of the special editions "is very carefully controlled, and we feel we're not confusing anyone out there."
While journalists are apt to blame USA Today--after all, an advertiser would be foolish to refuse a free, mock edition of a national newspaper--AIDS activists weren't about to let Glaxo escape. Longtime San Francisco activist Martin Delaney fumes: "I've long argued against direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, and this takes it to a new level. Both Glaxo and USA Today should be horribly ashamed of themselves. The only possible objective of doing what they did was to deceive the reader. What other point could there be?"
The credibility problem USA Today has created for itself extends beyond its AIDS coverage. Earlier this year, Glaxo was rumored to be in merger talks with Smith Kline Beecham--business coverage of any such deals is now tainted by having rented the paper's logo to a company it's supposed to cover.
USA Today sources say that few members of the editorial staff were aware of the Glaxo arrangement prior to its being published, and several were displeased once they learned of it.