Yesterday, an article appeared on The Atlantic’s website headlined, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” At the top, clearly if not ostentatiously, it was marked, “Sponsor Content.” In prose borrowed from the second-best writer in your tenth grade English class, it described how Scientology chief Miscavige had opened an “unprecedented” 12 “ideal churches” around the world (though mainly in the United States) in 2012, with a photograph and a short paragraph devoted to each one. “This new breed of Church is ideal in location, design, quality of religious services and social betterment programs,” it explained. You can download a screengrab that Gawker grabbed here.
The advertorial was the sort of thing that connoisseurs of Scientology agitprop would be used to. Here, for example, is Scientology’s official explanation of these so-called Ideal Orgs. It’s also the sort of thing readers of the Atlantic’s website would be used to: companies like Credit Suisse, Shell, and Mercedes-Benz have all purchased advertorials—“Custom Programs,” in Atlantic Media parlance. An Ad Age article about “custom advertising” reports that an IBM campaign with Atlantic Media received more than one million user interactions and likely cost as much as $200,000 for IBM. (An Atlantic Media spokesperson declined to comment on how much these advertorials cost, or how large a part of its digital advertising revenue they comprise.)
Nor is Atlantic Media remarkable in this regard. State-run Chinese and Russian publications buy space in the Washington Post. BuzzFeed runs no banner ads, only branded content. You would probably be hard-pressed to find a major media outlet that wouldn’t publish an advertorial.
What was different about this, apparently, is that this time, it was Scientology. And Scientology, we all know, is ridiculous, and worse. Right?
By late afternoon yesterday, Twitter and Facebook—especially those corners populated by media types, including media types employed by Atlantic Media—had blown up with talk, mostly of the righteous indignation or parodic variety, about the Atlantic’s accepting such a propaganda-y advertorial from such a bizarre and arguably malevolent advertiser.
According to the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, the feature was taken offline at 11:30pm and replaced with the following note: “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” Today, Atlantic Media released a statement saying, “We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism – but it has – to alert us that we've made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.” It added, “We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge – sheepishly – that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.” (An Atlantic Media spokesperson would not comment further.)
There was, admittedly, a problem with the comments. A suspiciously high proportion of the comments on the post were pro-Scientology, particularly at first. Someone at the Atlantic with knowledge of the situation confirmed that the comments were being moderated by the Atlantic’s marketing team, and that this is a prime thing that motivated the Atlantic to take the post down and issue the apology.
But beyond that, and at the risk of being labeled an editorial libertine, I have to ask: What exactly are they apologizing for?
Given that this post was labeled “sponsor content” at the top; and given that it said, at the bottom, “Sponsor content presented by The Church of Scientology”; and assuming that the wall between editorial and marketing was maintained (the person at the Atlantic said that editorial had no input in this advertorial, which is S.O.P. at media outlets); then the advertorial was an instance of the Atlantic, a for-profit magazine, accepting money in exchange for an advertisement. Just because it was written and designed in the style of a (poorly written and poorly designed) Atlantic post does not make it any less an advertisement than the banner ads that adorn virtually every media website you visit, including The New Republic’s.
Concerning the overly propagandizing tone: while I could understand being all the more embarrassed by it were I an Atlantic staffer, it’s preferable to the more sneaky air that surrounds, say, this Atlantic IBM advertorial. The Atlantic person I spoke to said that the magazine was planning to examine “how this kind of native promotion/sponsor content is presented so that it doesn’t confuse the reader.” The IBM advertorial is much more likely to confuse the reader than the Scientology one.
As if to confirm that the advertorial was independent of the Atlantic’s editorial mission, Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson last night tweeted two Atlantic “editorial articles” about Scientology, both of which were critical, and Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg decided to plug his friend Lawrence Wright’s expose about Scientology, Going Clear, which comes out Thursday. “I just felt it was an opportune moment to advertise Larry Wright's excellent journalism on the subject of Scientology,” Goldberg told me this morning.
Indeed, it is hard not to think that, from Scientology’s perspective, this was a rebuttal to Wright’s book. Atlantic Media pitches itself to advertisers as a prime way to reach the “influential” people “shaping our future”—exactly the sorts who theoretically will be swayed by Wright’s book (the three of them who don’t already disdain Scientology, anyway). Spokespersons from Scientology’s national affairs office in Washington, D.C., did not reply to requests for comment.
Yet the reason this ultimately feels to me like much ado about very little—or at least like a poor test case when it comes to the ethics of advertorials—is that it’s only Scientology. No doubt Wright’s book will reveal horrible things committed by members of the Church in the Church’s name. But I’d take Scientology over Shell—which, along with the rest of Big Oil, has a leviathan of a lobby that routinely pushes for policies virtually guaranteed to doom the planet—any day.
Anyway, if editorially the Atlanticis already (as its motto has it) “of no party or clique,” it’s not clear why it should be more scrupulous about its advertisers.