I received the latest issue of Christianity Today this week. I admit to being a bit confused at first. Front and center under the normal CT banner was Steve Carrell dressed as Noah, surrounded by animals and backed by an ark. At first I thought, "Finally, CT is getting serious about popular culture and they're doing a cover on religious films." Then I opened the magazine and saw the real cover inside the advertisement. I finally noticed the word "advertisement" above and to the right of the CT banner on the cover. The entire cover, front and back, was an ad for Evan Almighty mocked up as a CT cover.
It's not unusual for magazines to wrap their product in an ad. Books & Culture does it pretty regularly, and they are CT's sister publication. Usually though, B&C is advertising for subscription renewals or gift subscriptions. The ad is obviously an ad; even the paper stock is different. The CT ad though is a different matter. Am I worried that someone will be fooled into believing this is the real cover? No. Am I quibbling? Possibly. Is this that big a deal? Maybe not. But blurring the line between advertising and content is an ongoing problem with magazines.
By featuring the Universal Pictures film as the cover of their magazine, including their own banner, is CT making a tacit or even explicit recommendation? I've never gone for the argument that religious groups make that churches or ministries ought not advertise in magazines with objectionable material: adult ads, massage parlors, strip clubs, etc. The reasoning being, if you're trying to advertise for people who aren't Christian or who might need whatever ministry you provide, why would you not advertise in a publication they actually read? Most churches use the Yellow Pages, after all, and you can't control the content of the Yellow Pages: whorehouses, strip clubs, liquor stores, attorneys--it's all there. However, advertising in magazines is usually set off from content, and the line between an ad and a story or editorial content ought to be clearly demarcated.
I have no idea how much Universal or one of the other four distribution companies paid for the ad. I'm sure it was a substantial amount for CT to even consider the idea, and a full-color ad on the front and back of a national magazine has to cost more than a little. So what does CT think of the movie? It ought to matter since they've loaned their name to Universal for the ad. Maybe we'll have an editorial or publisher's letter that explains the reasoning. I sincerely hope that no one at CT has anything to do with the production of the explicity religious film. That too probably needs to be answered. Credibility is an expensive commodity to lose, and CT is precariously near the edge of losing credibility when they blur the line between journalism and marketing.