(Courtesy Erik Wemple Blog)

The stunning advertisement for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s reelection campaign on the front page of today’s Express, a publication of The Washington Post, didn’t materialize out of the blue. According to Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies, a salesperson for Express approached him wearing one of the vests that hawkers use to distribute Express at Metro stops all around town. In the vest’s display window was a mockup of how Express might look with a nice “two-page wrap,” advertising jargon for a cover page dominated by an ad.

The pitch from Express, Thies says, came in February, which wasn’t an ideal time to bite on it. Today was. Have a look at the photo above. Whereas Express commonly presents several headlines and blurb boxes, today its bulk is occupied by some negative words about Gray challenger and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. Key lines: “Can we trust Muriel Bowser to be Mayor? Muriel Bowser. NOT READY.”

Thies runs through the advantages of placing the ad on a Friday just around the corner from primary day in the District of Columbia:

  1. Express is a free publication that’s handed out at Metro stations.
  2. Hawkers wear the cover in the front and back of their vests.
  3. There are Express boxes around the city, and they’ll be featuring the Gray campaign ad perhaps until Monday morning.
  4. Hundreds of copies of the paper are left behind in Metro cars.

And so when the Express salesperson proposed such an ad, Thies says, “the first thing that came to mind was this is a perfect vehicle for a sensational ad.”

Express didn’t approach only the Gray people. When asked if he’d gotten the pitch, Bo Shuff, Bowser’s campaign manager, says, “I think it was one of the things I looked at.”

Attempts to get comment from Express on how it decides to sell its front to a political campaign have been unsuccessful. Thies, however, attests to some back-and-forth between the campaign and the publication. One key stipulation, he says, was that the ad’s disclosure statement — “PAID FOR BY VINCE GRAY 2014 . . .” — appear on both sides of the two-page space. The campaign was conscious of boundaries in putting together the presentation, Thies says: “There was no effort to misrepresent what the cover is. It’s not news.” The design, Thies says, carefully avoided mimicking the patterns that Express uses to present its cover stories. The ad cost $5,000, Thies says.

Whatever the campaign’s self-restraint, this piece of native advertising flunks all tests of journalistic hygiene. The “ADVERTISEMENT” notation is puny, not scannable by modern radar. Nor does the disclosure at the bottom of the ad jump out at the reader. What does jump out is a sudden confusion: Since when did Express get into the business of endorsing mayoral candidates on its front page?

Sure, turning the page yields the “real” front cover of Express, a nicely executed splash on Washington National Bryce Harper. But that’s not the selling point of this edition of Express. When the Erik Wemple Blog told Thies that his first response to the ad was to conclude that Express was editorializing, the Gray aide wasn’t chagrined: “If our ad is misconstrued as editorializing by a newspaper , that’s a little value added and we’ll take it.”

D.C.-area news consumers are familiar with a tabloid-size newspaper fronting fake covers as pricey advertisements. The Washington Examiner, back when it was a proud local newspaper, used to feature them regularly. When the Erik Wemple Blog told Examiner Editor Stephen G. Smith what had graced today’s issue of Express, he responded, “Oh God, you poor bastards — they were a killer to us.” Smith recalls checking the 13 Examiner newsboxes each day to survey how well his cover packages were promoting circulation. “When the wraps were on . . . there would always be papers [left] in the boxes,” Smith says. “When you flip open the box and see [that], it seems like a shopper or something. It doesn’t seem like a newspaper.” Never did the Examiner sell a wrap to a political campaign, Smith recalls. Good policy.