Today’s Burning Question: The Atlantic’s Sponsored Scientology Story Debacle


Today’s Burning Question from Adotas is: “What can be learned from The Atlantic’s Scientology Sponsored Story debacle?” Here’s how our industry contacts weighed in:

“The fact that there is so much internal and external strife at The Atlantic about native ads is not surprising. Ads that appear as content, such as native ads, are a slippery slope that blur the line between editorial and advertising. Editorial integrity should be the top priority for publishers. In turn, integrity and transparency should be a top priority for brands if they want to build a trusted relationship with their audience. Unfortunately, the way some publishers are implementing native ads is damaging to the publisher, advertiser and the end user. A recent Harris Survey found that the majority of online adults who have seen advertising that appears as content in the past 12 months find the ads misleading. I expect 2013 to bring even more backlash against the native ad format. People respond best to honesty and authenticity.” — Ari Brandt, CEO of MediaBrix.

“This is nothing more than a publisher stretching its advertising products in order to better monetize their content.  It just so happens to be a publisher who you’d never expect to race across the line between edit and advertising.  Brands are very aware that more than ever, consumers get to decide when, where and if marketing enters their lives.  We ignore banners, we skip ads on TV, we carry our music in our pocket so we don’t have to listen to the radio.  With consumers bowing out of anything that looks, smells or acts like an ad, it’s become important for publishers to test the boundaries of sponsored content.  And while it might be easy for independent publishers to straddle to line between paid advertising and editorial, for an established product like The Atlantic, a faux article was maybe a little more surprising and out of place.  Compound that strange experience with a moderated comments section and you’re throwing a match on the gasoline.”– Dave Martin, SVP, Media at Ignited.

“Good native advertising promotes a better user experience and provides value to consumers.  Allowing the Church of Scientology, or any brand for that matter, to publish thinly-veiled advertorial not only goes directly against what native advertising is, but also what the Atlantic is. There is nothing wrong with publishing ‘Sponsored Content’ or ‘Advertorials’ as long as they are clearly differentiated from the real editorial, but trying to pass off marketing collateral for news clearly does not sit well with readers.” — Ari Jacoby, CEO of Solve Media.

“The Atlantic’s embarrassed retraction of sponsored content serves as a reminder that the established ways of doing business for traditional media industries is no longer working. When print media dominated, it was easy to specialize and compartmentalize content and operations, leading to the journalistic ideal of strict separation between advertising and news, and more generally between financial considerations and editorial judgment, often invoked metaphorically as “church and state”. The public relations industry sought to scale the walls by providing ready-made content for news media, for example in the form of press releases, but this content was typically offered free of charge and taken up by news media free of charge. For this reason, public relations professionals were previously viewed with great suspicion  by journalists and advertisers alike, but today emerge as having superior ethics overall than many news and advertising professionals. As electronic media came to dominate the culture, beginning with broadcasting, but more fully with the Internet, we’ve seen the boundaries between different types of content blurring in many different areas, such as docudrama, edutainment, infomercials, advertorials, and product placement in motion pictures and television programming.  And online, the boundaries grow even fuzzier, as it is often not clear whether the source of a particular blog or YouTube video is a private individual, organization, or business. Digital technologies have presented new challenges to advertising that have led to efforts to break out of the compartment of a labeled advertisement, as it becomes easier and easier for audiences to ignore that type of content, while the same technologies have severely undermined the business model of periodicals such as The Atlantic, so both of these traditional media industries are struggling financially, and sponsored content must seem like a marriage made in heaven. What they failed to take into account is that in the electronic media environment, there are intrinsic values that differ from those of the print media environment. Print media favored content, facts, logical structure and organization. Electronic media favor transparency, honesty, self-disclosure, and a sense of genuineness in the presentation of real personality and appearance. Much of what is valued in the electronic media environment was missing in the way that The Atlantic presented Scientology’s sponsored content, and so the content and the sources were immediately rejected and ridiculed by audiences, and this can have a negative effect on the reputations of the magazine, and possibly the sponsor as well.” — Dr. Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University.

“Have people really not got something better to talk about than how native adverting is spoiling their publication? How frustrating it must be for the ad sales guys of these publications who are trying desperately give their clients a better ROI so they can book the next campaign. Advertising as we know it is changing rapidly, social and native ads work better than old style banners because they’re wrapped in editorial and are where the reader is. Most online publications are figuring out how to make money and get repeat business, if they don’t, will there be any editorial to read? People need to get used to it, it’s the future.”  — Richard Spalding, CEO, The 7th Chamber.

“Great content marketing is about three Cs: high-quality Content, appropriate Context and transparent Communication.  When these three Cs are executed correctly, readers get access to amazing content, they support the publishers they care about, and also grow their trust in the publisher and marketer for keeping disclosures direct and transparent.  Everyone wins.  When any of these Cs is ignored there is trouble (as we saw in the Atlantic’s Scientology article).  Lack of context and lack of communication around content’s purpose and sourcing violates the trust of the readers and threatens perception of the publisher and the marketer in a crowded marketplace.” — Laney Whitcanack, EVP of Conversational Marketing at Federated Media Publishing.

“A major lesson from the Atlantic Scientology sponsored story debacle is that such sponsored articles don’t work with publications of the caliber of Atlantic. Doing a sponsored story like that lessens the credibility of the publication long term and will make the public believe that stories can be bought by the highest bidder. Furthermore it hurts Scientology even further in the public’s mind because it makes them appear desperate that they would even pay for a positive story.” — David E. Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision, LLC.


  1. Jacoby at solve Media is right–lousy, thinly-veiled advertorial will never be native advertising–it will always be junk


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