Rolling Stone May Lose Millions If Advertisers Walk Over Boston Bomber

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The call to boycott Rolling Stone resulted in more magazines sales but maybe less advertisers. (Credit: Photo Illustration by London Shearer Allen)

The “boycott backfired!” Boycott failed! “Tsarnaev Doubles Sales of Rolling Stone.”

Sales doubled!?! Sounds exciting, right?  Except the paltry earnings from a doubling in newstand sales is chump change when compared to the loss of even one page of advertising, the real threat in the boycott.

Members of the media seem to be gleefully gloating that the controversy that surrounded the recent Rolling Stone cover featuring accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev increased sales of the magazine and that the cries from disgruntled readers for a boycott were an utter waste of time.

These claims of a “victory” are based on the newsstand sales of the August issue. As the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) glibly put it: “The lesson, in short, is that publicity of almost any kind pays.”

It pays because magazines are flying off the shelves? Really? Let’s do a special investigative technique that we like to call “math.”

According to Adweek, the Tsarnaev issue sold 13,232 copies in a two-week period, producing sales rising “102 percent over average per-issue sales for the past year.” Based on that math, Rolling Stone sells about 6,550 copies so the Tsarnaev issue sold an extra 6,681 copies (102%), making the total of 13,231 (close enough) copies.

The extra 6,681 copies sold for $4.99 made a grand total of $33,338 gross retail. After you factor in retail and wholesaler/distributor’s cut of the cover price, Rolling Stone would be lucky to get half of that — about $15,000. (All of this is besides the fact that retail sales only make up 5% of Rolling Stone’s approximately 125,000 monthly circulation — so who cares anyway.)

Pulling back the curtain on the claim that magazines are “flying off the shelves” and “newsstand sales surge,” we are talking about Rolling Stone grossing an extra $15,000. Not very exciting, since the advertising rate card says one page of advertising in Rolling Stone sells for $201,510 gross and $171,284 net,

If one advertiser pulls one ad from Rolling Stone, let alone ten, this is where Rolling Stone will take the financial hit — not at the newsstand. And if several advertisers walk away, it is potentially a loss of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

But not a word about that from Adweek, which declared “the controversy doesn’t seem to have hurt newsstand sales.” This is an odd statement considering that Adweek predicted the bump in retail sales when the controversy first broke in mid-July.

In an earlier article, Adweek did describe the possible backlash from advertisers that Rolling Stone was facing.

“A leading CPG marketer at a major media agency ‘had issues with the cover,’ said a rep. ‘[They were] not pleased at all.” Another buyer who has been hearing from clients described the reaction this way: “The general sentiment was that it’s been in poor taste. No one’s been supportive.’ Advertisers expressed surprise they didn’t get a heads-up before the magazine hit newsstands—standard practice when an issue contains potentially controversial content. That prompted some to contact their agencies, wondering whether they should continue doing business with the Wenner Media publication.”

Since the money game in magazines is ad sales, why is selling an extra 6,681 magazines touted as success, instead of considering a looming potential loss of millions in advertising dollars?

Christian Science Monitor barely touches on this issue. It is buried in the story when it really should be the lede.

“While magazine sales may be up for Rolling Stone, its August issue hit a sour note with advertisers. Several companies with ads in the controversial issue, including Kraft and Proctor & Gamble, were unhappy that they had received no advance warning about the cover photo, notes a recent issue of Adweek. The firms are questioning whether to place future ads with Rolling Stone, company representatives told Adweek on condition of anonymity.”

iMediaEthics has emailed and called Kraft and Procter & Gamble to fact check Adweek‘s claims that they weren’t notified of the cover and that they may stop advertising with Rolling Stone.

We’ve asked both companies if they will be placing any more ads during 2013 in Rolling Stone. Kraft representatives told iMediaEthics by email that will not comment, explaining that they  “for competitive reasons, do not discuss future advertising plans.” Kraft also stated that they “do not comment on speculation or rumors.” when asked about the the anonyous source who reported they were unhappy with Rolling Stone.

Tressie Rose from Procter & Gamble’s Communications, Brand Building Organization, responded to iMediaEthics inquiry. Rose wrote:

“As a matter of practice, we don’t comment on our media plans or relationships with our media partners so I don’t think we’ll be able to help you much with your story. Thanks for reaching out to us though.”

Josh Voorhees wrote for Slate that:

“Of course, as much attention as the promised boycotts may have gotten, they never really had a chance of doing real damage to the magazine because newsstand sales make up only a little more than 5 percent of Rolling Stone‘s roughly 1.5 million circulation.”

(The Slate article has an error: He misattributes the Adweek article to Ad Age. We are asking Slate about the error.)

More importantly Voorhees’ misses that the threat to Rolling Stone is not the people reading the magazine but the advertisers. After all, another name for boycotter is the “advertiser’s customer.”

And considering that copies of the controversial cover are being sold in groups of 25 on eBay, the increase in sales is hardly an endorsement of the cover by readers but simply a byproduct of American capitalism. Scarcity creates value as evidenced by one magazine selling for $500.

Why the media snow job?

There is a misconception that the reader/consumer of news is the customer for news media. The media at large is happy to allow this misconception to continue.

Advertisers are the news media’s true customer. A customer is defined as “one that purchases a commodity or service.”  Yes, readers/viewers are customers technically but as more news is consumed for “free” and news media runs into the ethically bankrupt territory of native advertising, the consumer of news becomes less and less important.

The truth is consumers are really just part of the commodity that is sold to news media’s main customer – the advertiser.

But media consumers are the advertiser’s customers. So it helps all media to try and sell the idea that customer outrage equals increased sales.

Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media” claimed in Christian Science Monitor that Rolling Stone “can afford to let advertisers be momentarily unhappy”.  He goes on to say, “I would tell them, ‘Go ahead and advertise in a magazine that has no impact and makes no contribution to a deeper understanding of the news.”

Considering that Rolling Stone was described as “a gasping dinosaur” less than a year ago by International Business Times, it shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the importance of fleeing advertisers. (Not to mention the magazine has had declining ad prices in recent years and only sold 25 1/3 pages of advertisements in the “Bomber” issue.)

The question Levinson needs to ask himself is ‘Does a magazine with no advertisers make an impact?’ Unlike the question of the tree falling in the woods this one might be easier to answer.

iMediaEthics has reached out to Rolling Stone to ask if advertisers have pulled ads or requested to see issues before placing an ad. We’ll update with any response.

UPDATE: 8/2/2013 : 4:40 PM EST: Added in response from Procter & Gamble.
UPDATE: 8/2/2013 11:12: PM EST: Fixed datestamp

CORRECTION - August 2, 2013 04:32 PM

Correction: iMediaEthics incorrectly read the circulation report. Slate’s article didn’t contain an error in saying Rolling Stone’s newsstand circulation is 75,000. We regret the error.

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Rolling Stone May Lose Millions If Advertisers Walk Over Boston Bomber Cover Boycott

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10 Responses

  1. Paul Levinson says:

    Actually, the question I’m asking myself is why a site with a name such as yours – imediaethics – would be so oblivious to the courage of Rolling Stone, and the social value of its article in this case.As for advertisers, I stand by my advice: were I a publisher of a magazine, I happily tell any advertisers who threatened to withdraw their ads over this matter to go packing – and, yes, seek publication in a magazine with no social value,

  2. Sydney says:

    Hi Mr. Levinson, See below a response from London Shearer Allen: Thank you for your comment. Our article is looking at why the news media is hellbent on pretending that the insignificant increase in retail sales has some larger meaning when the real threat to Rolling Stone is and always has been the loss of revenue from advertisers. This is quite different than a discussion of courage or the merits of the reporting. The real fallout of the cover from advertisers remains to be seen. We will be counting ads through January and update our article.

  3. Paul Levinson says:

    Thanks for your reply, Sydney.I understand what you see as the purpose of your article. My point is that any exploration of that purpose is myopic without a consideration of the actual social importance of the Rolling Stone article.That, indeed, was the point of what I told the Christian Science Monitor about what I would tell advertisers thinking of leaving Rolling Stone.

  4. Sydney says:

    Hi Paul, See below London's response: The media shouldn't manipulate the public into thinking that calls for boycotts failed and Rolling Stone has profited in some way from this issue. Selling an extra 6,000 copies means almost nothing but if an advertiser boycotts in response to public outcry, then Rolling Stone faces a huge potential financial loss. A discussion of the value of the article in question does not change this. As an aside, the controversy was about the cover of the magazine not the content of the article. Do you believe that a less glamorous photo of Tsarnaev on the cover would have had negatively impacted what you describe as the social importance of the article?

  5. Paul Levinson says:

    First, you’re the one who brought the value of the article into question here, when you chose to quote my jibe to potentially exiting advertisers, which jibe is predicated on the social value of the RS article.And, yes, I think the glamorous cover was essential to the thesis of the article, which is that a monster can look as good as the person on the cover (I made that point in the CSM interview, too.)And as to your central point about selling more copies in face of the boycott not having any significance: of course it’s significant. The boycott had precisely the reverse of its intended result.Meanwhile, everything you’re projecting about advertising revenue is just that: projection. And if we’re talking projection, I predict that RS’s ad revenue will increase, as advertisers begin flocking to such a culturally significant publication (another point – RS’s cultural significance in general, e.g., the McChrystal article – which your essay neglects to mention).

  6. Rhonda Roland Shearer, iMediaEthics editor says:

    Is it really a deep point and social value to point out that mass murderers can be handsome? Didn't the public learn this with, say, Bundy? Was the cover an act of courage or grab for dollars through controversy that has backfired?

    Where is the Rolling Stone owner in all this debate? Important for everyone to note his silence. Where are the public declarations of high-ground-taking, by the owner of Rolling Stone? The owner has never declared that he can "afford" to blow off advertisers to keep to the noble, but fast disappearing, course of editorial independence over advertising.

    iMediaEthics suggested a social engagement option that potentially would have not garnered the same backlash. See our suggestion here for an issue with multiple covers, which magazines can do, employing varied images of Tsarnaev:

    By issuing multiple covers with different views of Tsarnaev, the responsibility is on the audience to choose which cover they buy.

    If the glam cover sells the most, then readers voted and the public can hardly blame the publisher.. Likewise, if the image of Tsarnaev as a defeated young man on the gurney "wins," by most purchased, this also informs Rolling Stone.

    Editors would have shown by their actions that they weren't just going for sensation, but social engagement.

  7. Paul Levinson says:

    Thanks for the response, Rhonda. 1. The cover vivified the article – by showing the readers the way this monster presented himself. That's a deeper lesson than just that monsters can look glamorous – the point is that they present themselves as glamorous. 2. What relevance does the participation of RS's owner have to this discussion? I'm making logical points, which stand or fall on their own. Your argument here is just a dressed-up ad hominem attack. 3. Your suggestion about a cover is certainly interesting – why don't you start a magazine, try it out, and see what results? As it is, the fact there could have been other covers doesn't prove that RS's cover was wrong.

  8. Rhonda Roland Shearer, iMediaEthics editor says:

    1. The cover vivified the article – by showing the readers the way this "monster" presented himself. That''s a deeper lesson than just that monsters can look glamorous – the point is that they present themselves as glamorous.

    RRS>>Thanks for your comment. The "monster" presented himself in multiple ways in photos as our cover examples show. Therefore, the Rolling Stone's selection of one image over others–the most beautiful and glam, among others that the bomber took of himself –is part of what is happening here. Aren't we witnessing that the selection by Rolling Stone made the statement more than the image itself?

    2. What relevance does the participation of RS's owner have to this discussion? I'm making logical points, which stand or fall on their own. Your argument here is just a dressed-up ad hominem attack.

    RRS>>You told CSM that Rolling Stone “can afford to let advertisers be momentarily unhappy”…and that you would tell advertisers "Go ahead and advertise in a magazine that has no impact and makes no contribution to a deeper understanding of the news." You freely said what you would do given this circumstance and said the owner could financially afford it. But I don't only need to hear your opinion what the owner can afford or your opinion that he, in fact, has taken the high ground valuing editorial virtue over advertising revenue, I need to hear it from the man himself as the "buck stops here" leader of the publication in order to be inspired or to even believe it. It is not a personal attack to suggest that the owner needs to speak up. What does he think as the owner in charge of the purse strings? How is the magazine handling disgruntled advertisers, according to him ? Why isn't the virtue of editorial freedom over advertising income flag waved by him but by you and others? The owner standing up would do more good and have more impact than any cover in improving the sad landscape of journalism where owners are uniformly making the opposite choices–selecting revenues over editorial quality. Do you have some special knowledge where you know for certain that the cover selection wasn't a ploy for sensation and boosting earnings and was only a selection based solely on editorial virtue that was ready to face the torpedoes come what may, and dollars lost? I certainly don't know. That's why I would like to hear it from the horse's mouth, at least.

    3. Your suggestion about a cover is certainly interesting – why don't you start a magazine, try it out, and see what results? As it is, the fact there could have been other covers doesn't prove that RS's cover was wrong.

    RRS>>By iMediaEthics suggesting other possible covers that would employ the bomber's other selfies that aren't as glam and show darker and less attractive moods, I was trying to make a deeper point by demonstration, not offer "proof" that the cover was "wrong." By creating engagement from multiple covers, where the readers must choose, the troubling reality that the audience will often complain about something in the news being sensational, yet flock to read it, is addressed by such an experiment. If the most glam shot is selected by readers as determined by them purchasing it, then they are part of a process and possibly less fraught with negativity from feelings of being imposed upon by the single idealized view of the bomber as many protesters have described.

  9. Cupcake says:

    (Re: Cover choice) Writing for the Hillman Foundation's Clear It with Sydney blog (, Lindsay Beyerstein says the cover is "perfect" . Among other salient points, the author notes that "The central mystery of his [Tsarnaev's] story is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Putting a self-portrait on the cover captures that mystery perfectly." It may or may not be a perfect cover but in light of Beyerstein's insights, it's definitely not as bad as iMediaEthics and many others are making it out to be.

  10. Paul Levinson says:

    Not to belabor the points here Rhonda, but –

    1. The glamorous pic is the one most at odds with the ugly deed – therefore it is the one that tells us the most about the bomber. I would therefore have chosen it, too – and probably instead of a suite of pictures, which can dilute this central point.

    2. I’m a firm believer in letting logic and evidence speak for themselves – so I still don’t get why you say you miss commentary by RS’s owner. I (and others) have presented logical cases on behalf of RS’s cover. Wondering why the owner doesn’t enter this discussion doesn’t invalidate my (or anyone else’s) logic.

    3. Again, you’re of course entitled to think that multiple images on the cover would work better. I can see the value in that, but, as I indicated above, the single image actually on the cover is likely best. But, you’re just not suggesting another cover – you’re offering this as part of a critique, and a strong one at that, of RS. So you are, in effect, using your suggested multiple image cover to say RS was wrong (which, for the reasons I’ve given, I think is not the case).

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