Advertorial content is the bane of many a "straight" news editor. I spent the first five years of my career writing them under my own byline. Although they clearly labelled as advertising sections in my hometown newspaper, from comments my friends and family received it was obvious that many people didn't notice the difference. Some actually thought I was a reporter.
I still occasionally write advertorial for clients. But these days it does not mimic editorial content. It is clearly-branded, informational, long-copy advertising.
That was not the case with a story that popped up on The Atlantic's site this week. Readers were treated to a "sponsor content" story lauding Scientology leader David Miscavige (above). It was an ad. But it sure didn't look like one.
According to businessjournalism.org's Robin J Phillips, the page was removed after The Atlantic campaign "was the subject of much criticism on social media."
What's the big problem here?
Well, I find that this kind of scandal really depends on how hated the advertiser is. Scientology, outside of its ranks, is not going to win any awards for awesomeness. Some people fear and loath them, while others just make them (and their celebrity members) the butt of their jokes.
The Altantic didn't screw up by running advertorial. Many publications do that. They screwed up by letting the advertorial — from a sponsor that many of their readers are already skeptical of — look like their own news.
And, Phillips adds:
It looks like members of Scientology or their friends were geared up to comment on the piece. And there are other, very positive comments from people who don’t declare whether they are members or not.In other words, Scientologists wanted this content to be perceived as being perceived as real news. And good news.
In response to criticism, The Atlantic pulled the content with the note, "We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads."
They later apologized fully:
Regarding an advertisement from the Church of Scientology that appeared on TheAtlantic.com on January 14:
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's safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. 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.
Just another day in the life of online mainstream media.
Speaking of advertising, thanks to the good folks at Ottawa's Mayfair Theatre for the tip (via Twitter).