Scientology comes to The Atlantic

The internet freaked out this week when an advertisement done in the “Sponsored Content” style was discovered on The Atlantic‘s web site. I have to be completely honest that this made little sense to me.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve read cheesy ads in my favorite magazines that say “sponsored content” at the top but are otherwise made to appear as part of the magazine. I fancy myself a discerning reader who is able to figure out that the sponsored content is making claims that are, shall we say, less than journalistic. Why should it matter whether the miracle being pitched is for face cream or a secretive religious group?

But I was in the minority. The most common sentiment Americans can muster — outrage, obviously — was mustered and the ad was pulled down within 12 hours (you can see the cached version here). The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple had a good explanation of what happened, along with some key points, including:

  • Native ads are critical to The Atlantic’s livelihood. They are one element of digital advertising revenue, which in 2012 accounted for a striking 59 percent of the brand’s overall advertising revenue haul. Unclear just how much of the digital advertising revenue stems from sponsor content. We’re working on that.
  • Though the Atlantic has done many such advertorial packages in the past, Raabe says that it hasn’t received complaints — at least that she’s aware of.
  • This is the first such package that The Atlantic has done with Scientology.

The Atlantic issued a statement about the matter, which began:

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.

The New York Times noted that other digital media outlets ran sponsor content, adding:

But no instance of sponsored content has come under as much criticism as this one. Gawker called the sponsored Web page “bizarre, blatant propaganda for Scientology.” Others raised questions about why all the comments on the page were supportive of the church, indicating that critical comments were being deleted. A spokeswoman for The Atlantic said that the comments were moderated by its marketing team, not by the editorial team that moderates comments on normal articles.

At the same time, others defended the arrangement as a smart business move. The church’s ad buy comes at a time when it is trying to blunt the impact of a new book about the secretive religion by Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.” The book will be published on Thursday.

The Onion, the satirical newspaper, decided to run content from its partner, “The Taliban.” Headline:

SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement

What I didn’t see much of, however, was an explanation of why it was so awful that The Atlantic takes money from groups such as The Church of Scientology. I’m more than willing to hear that argument, I just noticed that there was a lot of outrage, and not much argument. What would a policy look like that bans such content, I wonder?

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