Atlantic Scientology Advertorial

Monday, The Atlantic published and took down a sponsored article from the church of Scientology. Yesterday, it admitted it had "screwed up."

Scientology-Atlantic1

Monday, The Atlantic published and took down a sponsored article from the church of Scientology. Yesterday, it admitted it had “screwed up.”

Jack Shafer, now at Reuters, explains:

The Scientology advertisement, composed by tone-deaf propagandists unable to write a sentence about the church’s alleged worldwide expansion without including a superlative – “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” (twice) – was taken down just before midnight after being up for about 11 hours. (See Erik Wemple’s tick-tock.)

A cached version of the Scientology advertorial is preserved on freiz.it, but be forewarned that there isn’t much there to interest you unless you’re an admirer of the church and love to read nice but bland things about it, or you detest Scientology and enjoy nothing better than to have a good laugh at the church’s expense and that of its “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. It’s really that lame.

The Atlantic‘s rambling apology, which admits to having “screwed up,” “made a mistake,” “failed to update … policies,” etc., and promises to “put things right,” concerns itself mostly with errors of process without going into what the company’s existing advertising policies might be. But as instant apologies go, it covers the company’s ass for the time being.

Setting aside the substance of the Atlantic‘s advertising policies, the Scientology advertorial illustrates a dual break-down. First, the church misserved itself by producing such a dorky exercise in propaganda. Can its executives and advertising department be so oblivious about how media works that they didn’t know the ad would subject them to ridicule from non-church members and a yawn from the faithful? If I ran the church, I’d be dispatching its copywriters to “The Hole,” Scientology’s alleged reeducation camp in the California desert.

If I ran the Atlantic‘s advertising department – the most frightening thought I’ve had all day! – I’d not have allowed the Church of Scientology to run that ad in the first place. If an ad director decides to accept a customer’s advertising, he doesn’t want one-off business. He wants repeat ads, from the beginning of time to the end, and he therefore looks out for the customer’s interests. Assuming that ad dollars from the Church of Scientology can, in good conscience, be accepted – a view I hold – the Atlantic‘s ad director was remiss in not taking the church aside and saying, “Look, I know you’re suffering a public-relations beating out there with the publication of Lawrence Wright’s expose, Going Clear. But the North Korean quality of this advertorial singing a song of praise to David Miscavige is unwise, and in your best interests I reject it. Let’s see if you can do better.”

The Atlantic was remiss in another way – as are many other websites that publish “sponsor content.” Many advertisers (unwisely) want to make their copy look as much like editorial copy as possible so that naïve readers will confuse it with the genuine thing. In the case of the Scientologyadvertorial, it is almost indistinguishable from the look and feel of the Atlantic‘s usual editorial copy. The only effort made by either the church or the Atlantic to inform readers that the content came directly from an advertiser was a yellow-shaded “Sponsor Content” notice at the top of the piece and a tag at the bottom. The church and the people in charge at the Atlantic appear to have stupidly co-conspired to muddy the distinction. Shame on both of them for not providing more design clues that the advertorial was a Scientology pitch.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici is a bit more forgiving:

Digital sponsored content — aka “native” advertising — has existed only as long as the internet, and it’s really only the last couple years that it’s come to be seen as a primary engine of growth for innovation-friendly publishers like The Atlantic, Buzzfeed and Gawker Media (and you can add FORBES to that list as well).

[…]

For the most part, mainstream media organizations reserve the right to accept all these types of advertising while refusing any individual ads they deem offensive or unethical. Even The New York Times, which styles itself the gold standard in most matters, doesn’t have any explicit policies that would prevent it from taking Scientology’s dollars (unless you count the rule against advertising “occult pursuits,” and I’m not going near that one).

The second issue is whether The Atlantic handled this particular piece of sponsor content in the right way. It obviously didn’t, particularly in screening out negative comments in a way that created an Astroturf-like false impression of favorable reader response.

Would anyone have noticed if the Church of Scientology’s bad odor hadn’t ensured a high degree of scrutiny? Probably not. Should that bad odor alone have been enough to get this advertorial spiked? Definitely not.

The Atlantic has gotten a good deal of ribbing about the whole affair on my Twitter feed and prompted a brilliant satire from The Onion: “SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement.”

I’m having trouble seeing what the big deal is here. [Full disclosure: I’ve written 18 pieces for The Atlantic; they’ve even paid me for a couple of them.] Print magazines have been publishing “sponsored sections” and “sponsored articles” clearly intended to be seen by readers as editorial content from the magazine for at least a quarter century. It’s an annoying practice, frankly, but I get the lure of the practice given the brutal economic realities of the business.

Really, the only thing The Atlantic did here that was unethical was spiking unfavorable comments on the ad while leaving the favorable ones. But the mistake was in allowing comments in the first place. Presumably, that’s the default position with the site’s content and they neglected to disable it for advertorial content. Oops.

But Shafer is probably right that the magazine was short-sighted in not telling its advertiser that the ad copy was embarrassingly ham-handed.  I say “probably” because I just don’t know the customs of the industry. While I’ve accepted advertising on OTB for years, it’s mostly through automated networks. I’ve only rarely intervened on the basis of content. So, I don’t know whether the advertising department typically works with those seeking to place ads to suggest changes to copy to better target their readership.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Al says:

    All Hail Lord Xenu!

  2. Al says:

    And the big deal here is that The Atlantic accepted money (money that was for all intents and purposes stolen) from a thuggish and most likely murderous cult. They did business with an evil organization and they deserve whatever chastisement they get.

  3. Tony W says:

    I guess I’m not seeing how is this different from accepting an ad from the Baptists or Catholics or Taliban? If some nutty folks with invisible friends want to share their money with you, I say let ’em.

  4. legion says:

    Really, the only thing The Atlantic did here that was unethical was spiking unfavorable comments on the ad while leaving the favorable ones.

    I disagree completely, James. They put in on their front page and their Ad Boss allowed it to be dressed up as an actual piece of reporting under the Atlantic name. If I were the sort of person who trusted or had even the slightest respect for The Atlantic, that would be badly damaged now, if not gone altogether. If their bringing in of McMegan wasn’t a sure sign of their intellectual bankruptcy, this surely is.

  5. legion says:

    And another thing,

    But the mistake was in allowing comments in the first place. Presumably, that’s the default position with the site’s content and they neglected to disable it for advertorial content. Oops.

    Manipulating comments on a story (beyond the removal of clearly abusive or spammy garbage) is more than just an “oops”. That’s a determined effort to continue trying to fool readers into believing this was actual Atlantic reporting – it was a deliberate choice to abandon intellectual integrity, and it’s a damn sight more than just an editorial oversight.

  6. Rafer Janders says:

    @Tony W:

    I guess I’m not seeing how is this different from accepting an ad from the Baptists or Catholics or Taliban?

    The difference is that it’s an ad dressed up to look like reporting. It’s a deliberate attempt to fool readers. It would be equally as bad if The Atlantic ran a supposed news piece titled “Child Rape No Longer Problem in Catholic Church!” that was actually written by PR flacks from the Church.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @legion: @Rafer Janders: But the article WASN’T disguised to look like reporting, at least more than it is in the magazines. It clearly stated, in yellow-highlighted text at the very top, that it was SPONSORED. It was even under a separate URL /sponsored/. The mistake, and it was a technical one, was allowing commenting; that’s silly for advertising. Presumably, that’s a function of it being their first one of these and not thinking it through.

  8. wr says:

    Hold on — The Atlantic apologized for running a terribly written, embarassingly amateurish piece mindlessly repeating the claims of a destructive cult while ignoring anything having to do with the real world — and it wasn’t by Megan McArdle?

  9. mattb (who is in favor of enhanced gun regulation) says:

    @James Joyner:
    I agree that the design wasn’t at issue. It was pretty typically for the way a pub handles an advertorial.

    However:

    The mistake, and it was a technical one, was allowing commenting; that’s silly for advertising. Presumably, that’s a function of it being their first one of these and not thinking it through.

    Unless I’ve got the facts wrong, the commenting wasn’t simply a “technical” mistake (i.e. it shouldn’t have been turned on). It appears that someone was tasked with monitoring the comments are removing offensive ones (see Bercovici). So either someone at the Atlantic was specifically tasked with monitoring comments (which they typically don’t do for general articles) OR they gave control to someone from the Church to do it. That’s not a “technical” mistake. It was planned from the start and was a bad idea.

    So we have to assume that commenting (and moderation of comments) appears a planned part of the advertorial package (probably a Chinese menu add-on service). And the lesson they learned from this is that it needs to be removed.

  10. legion says:

    @James Joyner: James, you fall into a fairly small demographic of People Who Run Successful and Popular Blogs – your eyes seek out details like that “Sponsor Content” tag, and know exactly what it means. You know what a distinct URL structure implies about a particular page. The vast majority of web surfers in general – and, I’d wager, Atlantic readers in particular – do not. Move your chair a foot father back from the monitor and then look at that screenshot again – imagine you’re a regular news reader looking at it for the first time. It looks very much like an Atlantic news posting, and that’s deliberate. That article is also HUGE – it covers more than two-thirds of their front page, and it’s the ONLY actual article visible. If this were a newspaper you were looking at, this “ad” would be the entirety of the above-the-fold landscape.

    You prefer to see it as an innocent mistake, and that’s fine, but while the Atlantic may not have done one of these advertorials before, they hardly invented the concept. Just the fact that we have a ridiculous word like “advertorial” in our vocabulary means that it’s been around for a while, and I strongly feel that both the advertising and news staffs should have known what was happening & how it would look. You see an innocent mistake, I see “testing the waters” to see what they could get away with…

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the article WASN’T disguised to look like reporting, at least more than it is in the magazines.

    If they had comments, it was disguised to look like reporting. People are conditioned to think that comments = actual reporting, not advertising.

  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    James, this wasn’t their first sponsored ad in this vein. They were running one for a couple of weeks written by IBM. I think it is just the first one that other journalists took exception to.

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the article WASN’T disguised to look like reporting, at least more than it is in the magazines. It clearly stated, in yellow-highlighted text at the very top, that it was SPONSORED. It was even under a separate URL /sponsored/.

    No, that’s silly. I obviously read media all the time, and even I, on first glance, would think it was an article. I’d quickly realize my mistake, but I’d know they tried to create that impression, and I also know that less sophisticated or experienced readers would be fooled. That SPONSOR CONTENT doesn’t mean anything to most casual readers who don’t know industry norms.

  14. Raoul says:

    I agree that SPONSOR COMMENT is not enough-IM not sure what it even means. This JJ comment and the DM commnet on the NRA ad on the President’d children tellms that neither of them should work in any PR department.

  15. swbarnes2 says:

    The other evidence that dishonesty was intended: The advertisement was obviously written by Scientologists. But it described Scientologists in the third person, the way a reporter would, not the way a group would describe themselves.

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @swbarnes2:

    Rafer Janders, who is one of the most astute and insightful commenters on OTB, agrees with this. When asked to comment, Janders, a quicksilver grin splitting his chiseled, handsome features, noted that swbarnes2 had a good point.

  17. matt bernius says:

    @swbarnes2 & @Raoul & @Rafer Janders:

    The way the Atlantic presented the advertorial (leaving aside the comment issue) is completely in keeping with the way that Magazines, Newspapers and Websites have handled advertorials for decades.

    And the entire writing it as if you were a “disinterested” third party is completely standard practice as well.

  18. matt bernius says:

    BTW, the Atlantic online has run advertorials in the past. In other cases they’ve run entire sections “sponsored” by a specific company (which I actually find *more* problematic from an editorial pov).