Soon after publishing a piece of sponsored content from the Church of Scientology on its website, The Atlantic, one of the last, thriving, respected brands in the world of online journalism, have removed it amid an uproar from media critics and readers. The post, (now down, but which you can see here) was designed to appear like any other bit of news on the site, and readers who didn’t notice the Sponsored Content button toward the top of the page may well have been tricked into thinking they were reading an editorial from the staff. Not particularly astute readers, sure, but the point remains.
That’s the essence of sponsored content — or, as its called, in a grossly ball-shivering bit of neologizing around The Atlantic, “native advertising”; it’s meant to play on the assumption that a harried reader will stumble into it like a wordy bear trap in the thicket. It’s a common practice print that has been smuggled into the revenue-generating blueprints of popular sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed as well. In print, however, there’s often a different type-set, or even quality of paper used in the advertorials — on the web it’s a lot easier to fit the Trojan Horse through the gate.
Speaking of gross, as Poytner reported today: “In an interview last year with Digiday’s Josh Sternberg, Atlantic publisher Jay Lauf said, ‘A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more … It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.’”
Safe to say The Atlantic’s readers didn’t feel very respected, judging from the uproar online, not because of the existence of pay for play journalism, which we’re all aware of, but rather the players involved. This is august The Atlantic after all (although sponsored content seems to be a big part of their digital revenue stream, as it turns out). The subject matter didn’t help either; the piece was a fawning bit of puffery on the controversial head of the Church of Scientology, the widely reviled religion often referred to as a “cult” by critics, but definitely not by us, because we’re scared of their lawyers.
Further complicating matters was the fact that comments on the post seemed to have been moderated by The Atlantic staff, with critical ones being filtered out. As the Washington Post found:
Commentators sniffed close moderation of the comments on the Scientology piece. Here’s some history on the topic: Advertorial sponsors in the past haven’t always opted to activate comments on their posts, according to Raabe. Makes a lot of sense, given all the abuse that can pile up in that territory, not to mention the labor required to clean it all up. In the case of the Scientology post, says Raabe, “Our marketing team was monitoring some of the comments.” The incident, she adds, “has brought to light policies on how we monitor sponsor content.”
The entire controversy brings into question the efficacy of sponsored content in the first place. While I happen to agree that this is an overstep by The Atlantic, I wonder if anyone has ever actually been tricked by an advertorial in the history of publishing. You can feel a change in the editorial air as soon as you wander into one. It’s like stepping through the veil into a world slightly familiar, but where something feels off. Seems hard to believe it’s an effective means of communication, but if it didn’t work on at least some readers, then advertisers probably wouldn’t be paying for it in the first place, so perhaps it’s a graver problem than it seems. That’s the entire premise of any type of advertising in the first place, isn’t it? To throw you slightly off balance, soften your critical reasoning defenses, and prime you for the pitch. Journalism is supposed to be the exact opposite. Sadly, I don’t think any of us, even The Atlantic, have any idea what that word means anymore.