Deception and the {Subtle} Art of Wine Label Reproduction

Deception, by nature, is often hard to spot. And hard to define. After all, in many cases deception itself can be a matter of opinion, and on top of that there are matters of degree.

The recent blog- and forum-driven storm over wine-writing ethics has focused on factors that can be very hard to get a grip on, namely the possibility that wine critics’ assessments of individual wines (and/or entire portfolios) can or have been impacted by unseen/unspoken perks (trips, dinners, insider access, etc.).

That firestorm, along with a more general publishing issue—the ethics of advertising being integrated into actual magazine covers (story here)—got me thinking that now is a good time to visit the question of: When is a label reproduction that appears in a wine magazine actually a paid promotion rather than an editorial graphic?

With that in mind, I am planning to stop by Borders today to check out the current crop of wine magazines, to see how, where and when labels are used. Before I report back, I’d like to invite Wine Skewer readers to toss their current perceptions into the mix. Ask yourself: Can you tell when a wine label is just a label, and when it’s an ad? And do you think the average magazine reader/peruser knows?

All together now: Hmmmmmm….

UPDATE (April 30,2009)–Local Borders was way slim in wine mags, so I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, consider this excerpt from the American Society of Magazine Editors website:


For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity. With that core conviction in mind—and the overwhelming support of its members—the American Society of Magazine Editors for over two decades has issued guidelines to make sure that the difference between advertising and editorial content is transparent to readers and that there is no advertiser influence or pressure on editorial independence. In this latest edition, we have aimed to make the guidelines easier to understand and to distill them into ten basic statements of principle and practice. ASME will continue to advise editors and publishers about how to interpret the guidelines. Repeated and willful violations will result in public sanction and disqualification from the National Magazine Awards.

Advertisements should look different enough from editorial pages that readers can tell the difference. To avoid confusion, any ad that looks enough like an editorial story or feature that it could be mistaken for one should be slugged Advertisement or Promotion at the top of each page in type as prominent as the magazines normal body type.

{For full text: link to}

Food for thought. As seen in my replies to comments form the original post, the thre main glossies take very different approaches to label reproductions. Back with more tomorrow….


  1. Posted April 29, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I actually don’t think about whether or not its an ad or isn’t an ad.

    As a blogger, I try to take my own photos for everything because I simply think that blog posts with some sort of (relevant) imagery look better. If I don’t have a photo of my own, I’ll either pull one from a winery website or email them asking for one.

    I do this really as a SERVICE to my readers. Never crossed my mind to charge a winery for it. Then again, it never would cross my mind to charge a winery anything, because I won’t take money from a winery.

  2. Posted April 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Q: Can you tell when a wine label is just a label, and when it’s an ad?
    A: You would have to be inside the mind of the writer to know that. All labels are ads, it’s just their nature.

  3. Posted April 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    It sounds you’re alluding to the difference between Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator with respect to whether the wines in their buying guides that have labels are paid for. I prefer Spectator’s model (where they’re not paid promotions) but this issue bothers me less than other issues like whether publications adhere to their stated tasting guidelines, especially whether they taste blind always or “when possible”.

  4. Posted April 29, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Had to think about it for a minute. I realize that when I see the image of a wine label in a blog I assume the image was created by the poster. I realize this may be naive of me – especially because when I see a wine bottle ANYWHERE else: cover of a magazine (or even accompanying a feature inside), in a newspaper, on TV or in a movie (even a move on the internet) I automatically assume that somebody paid for the product placement.

  5. wrtish
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    All labels present images, but there is a difference between a label being used to illustrate editorial content and a label being used precisely because the business that produced the label paid for it to be printed in an editorial context. Huge difference.

  6. wrtish
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Actually I was hoping to compare more than WS and WE, but alas my local Borders only had a Feb. 2009 Wine & Spirits, and no sign of Quarterly Review of Wines or other less well-known ones. Indeed you are nail-on-head with the difference between WE & WS. Wine & Spirits also runs paid-for labels in their buying guides. Both WE and W&S provide verbiage to that effect in their tasting policy info box. One big difference, however, is that a winery buying a label in WE gets to have its review run twice: the rated review runs sans image but with taster’s initials (indicating who did the review) in the regular run of the buying guide; the review is stripped of those initials when it runs with the label in the “gallery”-style section of the buying guide, on full pages, making those wines look to the innocent eye as much more of an endorsement than simply a visual reference for the wine tasted.

  7. wrtish
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I understand the skepticism with respect to product placements in movies and TV. In reputable magazines that adhere to guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors, such placement is a no-no. (More on the ASME in a future post.) I know of no blogger that takes money for running any labels, period. In fact, most are more than happy to shoot and include their own digital photos.

  8. Posted April 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    I think that readers do appreciate seeing the label for a recommended wine, regardless of whether any advertising $ changes hands, because it helps them recognize the wine in their local retail shop. As long as the magazine isn’t deciding which wines to recommend based on which producers pony up for a “label ad,” I doubt that readers would care about the payment. It’s just another way for magazines to generate much-needed revenue (especially in these times), and I don’t really see the harm.

  9. wrtish
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Of course readers appreciate seeing the label. And I have no suspicion that scores are being changed. I can’t quibble too much with Wine & Spirits; they altered their “About the tastings” info back in 2006 to more evident (in direct response to the article I wrote about buying guides for Wines & Vines when you were editing there). And W&S makes not attempt to alter the order of wines as ther are presented by descending score in the buing guide pages.

    What does not pass the sniff test in the case of WE is that the labels are clearly modeled after Wine Spectator’s front-of-the-section format, which is purposely positioned there and defined as the magazine’s special endorsements. Is what WE does wrong? No more so than when Gallo imitates K-J with Turning Leaf; or, say, when supermarket brand packages mimic “name” brands. As the post title says, this is subtle. Not one inch of the WS Buying Guide includes paid promotions; every inch of the WE label gallery is paid promotions. It is precisely because of situations like this that ASME developed guidelines separating editorial and advertising. If WE were to adhere to the ASME standards, they would simply put a flag at the top of each of those pages denoting such, and the distinction would be visible at a glance to readers. THen again, WE mag is not a member of ASME as far as I know; M. Shanken publications are.

  10. Posted May 1, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Tish: The issue of separation of advertising and editorial is an important discussion. Another issue would be magazines or reviewers that also are supported by wine clubs or clicks retail. That in my opinion seems to be a potentially significant breech unless the connection is completely transparent. The issue of pay for play covers more ground than just the wine press. A significant amount of current TV supposedly food & beverage editorial content is pay for play. I don’t do reviews on my blog, but I do tweet from tasting events and often include label shots. I don’t except advertising, freebies, samples or comps. I pay to play. Thanks for raising the level of discussion on the issue of ethics and journalism.

  11. Posted May 6, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    The once-sacred boundary between editorial and advertising is rapidly being eroded. One of the worst offenders is Gourmet magazine, in which advertisements often are laid out in designs and formats that closely resemble articles in the magazine. In a recent issue, a well-know chef was profiled in an article and appeared a few pages later in an ad endorsing a product. Gee, what’s the ad and what’s the article here? The Wine Spectator is almost as bad, especially in ads and articles that heavily promote the luxury “lifestyle.”

    I think wine bloggers, and especially reviewers, are universal in using label art taken from winery web sites or other on-line sources, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s a service to readers, a visual cue, and it breaks up all that dead gray and white space. To try and charge a winery for that service would be wrong and ludicrous.

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