By: Madeline Rose
A sophisticated magazine aimed at thoughtful consumers of news analysis, the Atlantic, fell under severe criticism this month. They released an online publication exalting the worldwide growth of Scientology in 2012, and then hours later removed the article. In its stead was a statement on the suspended status of the advertising campaign and the revaluation of their policies.
The article was an advertorial: essentially a piece of advertising run in a publication to look like an editorial, but was bought and paid for like any other ad. News agencies have been running them for years because advertisers see the value in utilizing the authoritative brand of the news to serve their clients. When more traditional advertising is forgotten or ignored on the side of an article, a well written advertorial will get news consumers reading about a product and, better yet, thinking about it.
While it may seem like the work of clever public relations, there are some drawbacks to using advertorials and other native advertising. The Federal Communications Commission or FCC requires disclosure on many types of advertising. The Atlantic followed protocol and labeled their piece as “Sponsored Content” which led to a pop up of a clear description of what that entails. However, in the case of broadcast mediums, studios are airing “video news releases” and are subsequently being hit with fines due to the lack of differentiation. The differences between original and bought work are often subtle but can still draw the attention of journalism ethics Nazis and the FCC.
A rather blatant piece of propaganda, but the article was labeled as advertising. What drew most of the criticism was not so much the use of sponsored content but the censoring of their readers as a result. Scientology is often under the eye of the press (having been subject to more more than a couple scandals), and many critics say in hindsight the magazine should have not allowed for comments altogether. Many times advertisers will choose not to enable comments on their advertorials because of the potential hostile reception. Instead, the Atlantic monitored the comments and deleted those which cast a negative light against Scientology. The perceived censorship of their supposedly valued intellectual audience was not favored by readers.
In effect, the Atlantic angered their niche audience and issued a very blunt apology. On Monday, January 14th, the same day they uploaded and pulled the article, they released a statement reading “We messed 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” (magnetmail.net). Whether or not they were in full authority to censor content in the interest of their sponsor or if they were in the wrong to offend their audience remains to be seen. Going forward what matters is retaining their image of integrity and maybe choosing more tastefully written pieces for sponsored content.