Are weekly gossip mags still the right place for your ads?

As tabloid mags become the target of public protest, their content is under pressure to change.

Gossip mags: Wonderhood duo created warning labels
Gossip mags: Wonderhood duo created warning labels

"Contains stories seriously damaging to mental health", "Full of harmful and toxic messages" and "Reading lies exploits the most vulnerable" – these are the warnings slapped across gossip mags in UK newsagents by a team of creatives from Wonderhood Studios in collaboration with Visual Diet, an initiative to encourage people to become more conscious of their visual consumption.

And after hair salons boycotted these titles following the death of Caroline Flack, what is the future for these magazines and the brands that choose to advertise within them?

Ads DeChaud and Phil Le Brun, the creative team behind the warnings, believe that magazines have reached a "tipping point" with a groundswell of opinion that serving up toxic coverage is no longer what consumers want. "Invading people’s lives, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, celebs without make-up, uncited ‘insider’ sources… ethics don’t seem to be considered when publications are built on feeding off gossip and lies, preying on the vulnerable and exploiting people’s mental well-being in order to sell copies," Le Brun says.

Magazines that "encourage us to tear down women and revel in the misery of other humans should be fined and banned," Mimi Gray, founder of Visual Diet, says. This kind of coverage is incredibly damaging, she explains, promoting a negative world view to readers, where women are judged solely on their looks. Indeed, almost 90% of teen girls think women are judged more on looks than ability, according to the Girls' Attitudes Survey from Girlguiding. "If there is no immediate change," Gray says, "history will continue to repeat itself and tragedies like the death of Flack will continue to be commonplace."

Delegitimised toxic trash

Women’s weeklies reach 25% of British people online and in print – that’s 13.1 million people over the age of 15 (according to figures from Pamco for the year to September 2019), making them a popular target for brands wanting to reach large swathes of consumers. And while publishers often rush to hide behind the popularity of their content, using readership figures as a shield to defend their negative coverage, "Yeah, people still read it though" becomes an increasingly difficult excuse, Le Brun says, "when the thing ‘people read’ is delegitimised, toxic trash your hairdresser won’t stock anymore", adding: "Cigarettes still sell, but it doesn’t mean they give you any less cancer."

And the publishers’ popularity argument may well be losing ground as the surge in opposition to gossip mags continues, with a petition of 860,000 supporters delivered to parliament last week by activist organisation 38 Degrees. The petition, the biggest 38 Degrees has ever seen, calls for "Caroline’s Law", making it "a criminal offence for the British media to knowingly and relentlessly bully a person, whether they be in the public eye or not, up to the point that they take their own life".

Holly Maltby, campaign manager at 38 Degrees, says: "It will be much more challenging for publishers to defend their approach to getting a media hit following this unprecedented public outcry. A message from over 860,000 people, asking for an end to bullying and harassment, will be difficult to ignore. The public have drawn a line in the sand, saying we want to see an end to this behaviour in our press. The level of public reaction shows we expect certain parts of our press to change."

Although Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief at Reach, declined to be interviewed by Campaign for this article, the publisher of Mirror, Express, New and OK! has offered guidance to reporters who have received online abuse following their coverage of Flack’s death, with Embley sending a message to staff last month defending its online coverage, saying there is "no evidence" that it had been "irresponsible". "Unfortunately, it seems that in the current climate some people are desperate to blame the mainstream media for everything that goes wrong," he continued.

Publishers are keen to defend themselves. Bauer Media, owner of women’s weekly titles including Closer and Heat, explains that it "strives to provide stories that are good, relevant, accurate and interesting to each of our audiences".

Freedom of expression

It claims "a deep knowledge and strong understanding of our audiences and continually evolve our titles to reflect the breadth of content our readers are interested in – our brands are more than just magazine covers. As our customers’ opinions and the cultural landscape changes, so do the topics and themes we cover. Our behaviour and editorial conduct is in full compliance with the Ipso Editors' Code of Practice and all relevant legal authorities." 

The Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Editors' Code of Practice is a set of principles designed to balance individual rights with freedom of expression. Provided the code (and the law) is not breached, editors are free to decide what material they choose to publish. According to Ipso, there are no provisions in the code for "balance" or "positivity" – it covers things such as accuracy and privacy, but there are specific clauses of the code to deal with harassment and privacy. Ipso also supports people with potential intrusion concerns.

Yet some believe the regulations don’t go far enough, with Gray calling for "a free press which holds those in power to account – the job of truly independent press regulation, that has teeth, would be to strike the right balance".

Conversely, publishers such as Bauer believe the Ipso regulations, along with their own editorial values, are enough to keep them in check. "This constant review process," Bauer says, "ensures that we always remain relevant and provide the right environment for our commercial stakeholders. Mental health is an extremely complex issue and we strongly believe in raising its awareness and take any public concerns very seriously."

This belief, Bauer says, is reflected not only in its portfolio but also in its campaign work with Mental Health First Aid England and Natasha Devon for Where’s’ Your Head At?, calling for a change in health and safety legislation to put mental and physical first aid on an equal footing. The associated petition garnered support from a host of celebrities and MPs, and has gained more than 210,000 signatures.

Proactive publishers

And Bauer is not alone in taking proactive steps around mental health and well-being. Hearst, publisher of Best, Prima, Women’s Health, Good Housekeeping, Elle and Cosmopolitan, launched Project Body Love in 2019, jointly with Procter & Gamble brands Always, Pantene and Venus, aiming to increase body positivity and permanently change the way women and girls think, feel and speak about their bodies. Its research of 2,500 women showed that since the start of the campaign, it has seen women embracing "a more positive mindset", with a 37% uplift in women agreeing they have "high body confidence", across all ages.

It’s clear that publishers are aware of the impact they can have on the lives of others and their responsibility. "But it’s about more than just balance and positivity. Ethical journalism has to be about truth first; there are dangers in presenting complex and contentious issues with false balance or glossing things over with positivity," Le Brun says. "This starts with getting the facts right, impartiality and treating people like people, not just content on a page or a story to sell."

And it’s not the first time that a moment like this has swept through the media landscape. So should advertisers still be willing to buy space against negative toxic content? Gray believes it’s "understandable" that certain brands or agencies might want to distance themselves from media that behave irresponsibly. "Brands need to be savvier about who they align themselves with, more discerning when it comes to partnering with people whose values do not align with their own or do not speak to, nor benefit their audience."

With many brands placing just as much importance on what the placement of their ad says about them as the actual content of their ad, will some advertisers begin to turn their backs on the most toxic women’s weeklies? As Le Brun says: "You can make the most incredible, creative ad in the world, but context is everything."