Why The Atlantic’s Scientology Advertorial Was Bad

The Atlantic has apologized for the way they handled a “sponsored” article about Scientology on their website last night. That’s good, and necessary. (It belongs on their actual website, rather than in an email campaign, but whatever.)

The magazine would doubtless like for this to be the end of the discussion, and it probably will be. Most readers will forget it happened, except the ones who already hated the magazine. But the thing that happened last night is interesting for a couple of reasons, and I think it’s worth actually laying them out before we all agree to drop it and hope it never happens again. Specifically, there are two kinds of “bad” to talk about, here, and it’s hard to talk about them at the same time, so I won’t.

Bad as in Bad for Business

The first set of problems is purely about business. The magazine’s ad team, which is run separately from its journalistic counterpart, sold the Church of Scientology a “sponsor content” slot, ran an article (presumably) written by the church, and (presumably) made some kind of agreement about blocking/removing negative comments that led to last night’s Twitter riot.

Here are the business problems with their decisions:

  • The Church of Scientology is a highly controversial organization. The choice to run any church-produced promotional material was also therefore going to be controversial. It’s difficult to imagine that the ad team simply didn’t realize this—more on that in a minute.
  • The “article” was presented in a way that is visually indentical to other Atlantic content, except for a small disclaimer at the top. It was not visually distinguished in unmistakable ways, which meant that some readers were likely to mistake it—content known to be controversial—for legitimate editorial material.
  • The sidebar content was not separately flagged, and was even more easily mistaken for “regular” Atlantic content.
  • The comments section for the article looked exactly like every other comments section on the Atlantic website, but was actually very different: it was, in fact, moderated by the magazine’s marketing staff, who blocked or deleted comments that criticized either the Church of Scientology or the Atlantic’s decision to run the advertorial.
Groundbreaking book on film!

“Related content,” courtesy Casey Gollan.

So, to recap, the Atlantic’s ad team elected first to run a prominent ad from a controversial organization, and then to do it in a way that was sufficiently ambiguous that some readers felt tricked and many felt was so shady that it damaged the magazine’s credibility. Given that the Atlantic’s entire business model rests on its credibility, this is a serious error.

The reaction that followed was predictable for just about anyone who’s ever used the internet. And the maddening thing is that this is the sort of thing we figured out years ago. Part of my livelihood is working with companies, government agencies, startups, and nonprofits to figure out how to coordinate all of their communication and publishing so that it actually serves their human readers. There’s a whole field of people who do nothing but that. No one schooled in this work would ever look at a hilariously over-the-top Scientology press release and imagine that it was going to serve the Atlantic’s readership. (Media companies, I will note, tend to look at “content strategy” as either beneath their notice or something they already do better to begin with.)

Moreover, there is a precedent for handling controversial ads. You mark them out as ads just like everything else and you don’t try to trick anyone into thinking they’re not.

This is the easy part. Investigative journalism is hard. Writing as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates is hard. Managing the budget for a print/ditigal magazine while the print world is in freefall is hard. Spotting sponsorship deals that will spook and anger readers, especially if they’re published in deceptive ways? This should not be hard.

On Those Comments

I want to spend an extra moment on this, because a lot of people last night seemed not to understand why some of us found the Atlantic’s comment moderation so problematic.

Here’s what happened: Someone with the mod keys to an Atlantic Disqus account blocked (as in “did not allow to be published”) comments critical of Scientology, and—I think even more importantly—comments critical of the Atlantic and its decision to run the advertorial. One such comment, by Disqus employee Mat Mullen, slipped through and remained up long enough to get at least 766 “upvotes” before it was deleted. An hour or so after the Twitter outrage wave, whoever was moderating the comments simply stopped allowing any to be published.

So who was blocking and deleting comments criticizing the church and the Atlantic? Some on Twitter speculated that the magazine had actually turned over the Disqus mod powers to the church, but the comments that slipped by suggested that this was unlikely. This one, for example, appears to most readers to be just one more bit of pro-church puffery, but it’s probably a sly reference to the fact that Shelly Miscavige, wife of David Miscavige—the beaming gentleman at the top of the advertorial—has not been seen for six years, amid media speculation that she is being held captive by the church. (There are reasons this particular client is controversial.)

This morning, the Atlantic says it was their marketing department. On one hand, I guess it’s nice that the Atlantic business team didn’t let their client directly delete comments—but on the other, it means that Atlantic marketing team deleted and blocked criticism of the Atlantic on the Atlantic website. In the tiny world of journalist ethics, that should be a big deal.

But this all pales in comparison to the simple betrayal of the reader’s trust. When you fail to explicitly state that you’re blocking and deleting comments critical of your subject and your publication, you imply that you aren’t—especially when every other comments section on your website allows negative comments. You are presenting a tiny selection of comments by supporters of your client as the entire conversation. You are telling a lie.

Bad as in Wrong

I care about journalism because I care about democracy and transparency, and also because I like good writers, many of whom practice journalism. I’m not a journalist—I care as a reader. (Friends in news should look away now, because I’m going to get earnest.)

A year ago, I started working with people who write code in and for newsrooms, and since then, my sympathy for journalists has only increased. I understand, now, how a single news organization can publish stellar investigative reporting and daft, shallow fluff pieces. I see how angry many journalists are about business decisions that reduce their credibility, and that they can’t even speak about on the record. And I see a lot of writers, editors, designers, and developers working for so much less money than they’d make in other fields because they think it is important to reveal the hidden workings of power and drag secret things into the light.

And because of all that, I’m not particularly vulnerable to the widespread belief that “media people” are all slick liars running cons on a public they see as marks.

So I’m sad when I see journalists pretending that “revenue generation” is a zone without ethics—that there are no limits besides what’s good or bad for business or what “might disturb readers.”

The founder of PaidContent suggested on Twitter last night that “morality in journalism”—as opposed to “quality”—is “just elitism”:

But the whole point of actual journalism—as distinct from, say, 4chan or tabloids—is that it works within an ethical framework to accomplish something of use to the public. And those ethical positions can’t stop at the “Chinese wall” that is supposed to separate ad sales (and thus financial pressure) from editorial work, because from the outside, and sometimes even on the inside, it is all the same thing.

If you wouldn’t knowingly lie to your readers in an editorial or an investigative feature, you shouldn’t deceive them with interface design choices that obscure the line between ads and “content.” If you have ethical guidelines about what you publish, they should apply to what you publish. Anything else shows a contempt for your readers that will eventually and rightfully catch up to you.

Edited to add: Although it’s always been my policy not to publish screaming or abusive comments here, I feel the need to reiterate that today. Not a journalist, not running a newspaper. Keep it civil or get your own blog.

15 thoughts on “Why The Atlantic’s Scientology Advertorial Was Bad

  1. As someone who worked for Scientology for 15 years and saw Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology and escaped with the help of law enforcement, I am appalled that The Atlantic would accept money from Scientology for them to push their blatant lies masked as an “ADvertorial”. 

    Scientology is the fastest shrinking cult in the world. They have been scooping up real estate and that is their definition of “expansion”. In actual fact, they are losing more members than in their entire 50 year history of scamming people.

    When I left in 2005, their members statistics had been going down fast and steady since 1996.

    Now that more and more media outlets are not afraid of exposing the scam that is scientology, they are having a very hard time getting new “raw meat” through the door and out with their credit cards.

    This Atlantic flap should serve as a lesson to other media outlets. Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet. Stay away – far away. Their money is not worth the trouble.

    Marc Headley
    15 Year Scientology International Headquarters Employee

  2. “But the whole point of actual journalism—as distinct from, say, 4chan or tabloids—is that it works within an ethical framework to accomplish something of use to the public.”

    Agree wholeheartedly. But as a member of the public I am left with the perception that the majority of our “respectable” news outlets seem to have forgotten this point also, and instead serve as stenographers for their political and corporate powers-that-be who wish only to maintain the status quo… which is not well correlated with the best interests of the public. Thus the misperception of “morality = elitism.”

    I never considered The Atlantic to be one of those stenographers, even though they have been accused of employing a few. This was a disappointing event. Thank you, Erin, for the insight.

  3. Readership for newspapers and magazines has been going down dramatically over the last 20 years. Revenue has also followed this downward march. It is not the journalists that are ethically challenged but the publishers. It is the publishers that have allowed the advertorials to look indistinguishable from the articles and news items. It would be interesting to hear from a publisher on the moral calculas that allows this to happen.

  4. The mere fact that The Atlantic ran a ad for Scientology tells me that they lost all credibility. Its sad but its now time for them to go to the magazine graveyard.

  5. At the end of the day, it is all a test. A reader can’t “trust” what she reads, she must simply scrutinize it thoroughly and fold it back into her evolving understanding of the world. I’m not trying to play a pseudo-Nietzshian card here, claiming that those who get scammed deserve to be scammed. But indeed, we must not forget that fact – The Atlantic is not be trusted any more than anything else that is sold for a profit.

    Surely, I agree that The Atlantic is not really able to make any claims to being superlative in journalism anymore after a stunt like this. They haven’t sunk to a new low; they’ve sunk to an increasingly normal mediocrity. That’s the sad part. They’re still an amazing journalistic outfit, probably my favorite. But acts like this make me doubt whether they are truly as different as any other journalistic outfit. Perhaps trying to make a profit in journalism, trying to run a journalistic BUSINESS, as in any other industry that has moral ground at stake (i.e. health care), is truly the problem. When the going gets tough, the tough take advantage of others.

  6. Interesting and well written. I agree with what you’re saying about the journalistic and ethical need for publications to clearly identify paid advertisements and distinguish them from regular content. The problem for the media is that we (the public) are getting better at ignoring advertisements. We use DVRs to skip commercials when we watch TV, we use browser extensions to remove ads from web sites we visit, and we pay for services like Sirius/XM so that we can avoid having to hear ads on the radio. If we can clearly tell something is an ad we tune it out. In light of this I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that companies would pay more to make their advertising blend in with the regular content. I suppose the question is what’s reasonable to make it clear what content is paid and what isn’t. Of course in this case the content itself should have been questioned, as you point out. That it wasn’t is probably just a sign of the pressures caused by the diminished effectiveness of advertisements.

  7. There is no journalism at the Atlantic. Their ‘model’ post runs as follows:
    1. Mention (or make up) some problem that strikes a chord with the’common folk’.
    2. Mention a bunch of anecdotal ‘evidence’ that supports/ inflates said problem.
    3. Quote a few ‘experts’ that agree (or quote them in a manner that makes it seem like they agree).
    4. Re-state the urgency of the problem.
    5. Watch the ‘common folk’ agree their heads off in the commenting section and on twitter.
    6. Sit back and watch bloggers and reputable news organisations ‘discuss’ the merits (or lack thereof of said piece) all the while linking to the original ‘content’.
    7. Watch the ad revenues roll in.
    Pure Snake oil. This latest incident is the bottom of that slippery slope. Blaming the marketing department doesn’t make an iota of difference-they have selected for the kind of readers that deserve to be treated that way. At least now it’s crystal clear to everyone.

  8. This is not a new problem, nor is it one unique to the modern digital era, as the Atlantic’s apology tries to lay the blame.

    When I worked in the layout dept of a small weekly free paper, almost ten years ago, we very frequently had the problem of clients who wanted us to run advertorials that looked like articles, to make it look like we endorsed the content, and the managerial tension between wanting the money and not wanting to corrupt our journalistic reputation. And surely everyone remembers seeing these as inserts, or semi-discreet page ads (often a full page, to make it look more like an article) in print magazines of yore?

    The only new or digital aspect, perhaps, is that publications are hungrier for advertising dollars due to the increased competition, but that’s not really all that new either, considering that a hundred years ago every city, major or comparatively minor, had multiple daily papers, and they could not all survive in the same markets long before I was born.

  9. I’m not sure what Ali was getting at wrt the difference between quality and morality. What I am interested in as a consumer of news is not exactly morality (I don’t especially care if the reporter cheats on his wife or his taxes), but integrity–I want to know he’s giving me the best picture of reality he can, not shading things to favor his political side or the business interests of his paper. I explicitly do NOT want him deciding there are some things that ought not to be discussed or that I don’t need to know, whether that’s publishing pictures from our wars that undermine public support for them, or not reporting the race of criminals to avoid having readers get the wrong ideas. It seems to me that the advertorial really strikes at The Atlantic’s integrity–they will produce content that looks like the real stuff, but is really entirely based on what makes them money, regardless of truth. And this is a bigger problem because a Scientology advertorial was going to kick up a storm, but now I wonder how many other advertorials they have run from less controversial groups, but with the same lack of integrity. If I’m reading Ta-Nahisi Coates or James Fallows, I know their biases and have some trust in their integrity, but when I’m reading some random thing in the Atlantic, it’s not clear I should trust that–maybe this is another time when the business needs of the magazine trumped journalism, and I’m reading an expensively-placed press release.

  10. Thinking this over, I should add that the problem with the existing media business model — and it is neither a new one, nor limited to print — is that it is predicated on the purveyance of a product that nobody wants. Yes, there are exceptions — the exceptionally witty, cute, visually dramatic or fun (or, occasionally, truly helpful!) ad that everyone remembers, and nowadays forwards via YouTube to their friends — but by and large, it is the case that advertising is something that people either skip over without realizing, or actively avoid.

    So advertisers, and the media companies that rely on them, resort to ever more intrusive tactics: play the volume louder than the TV shows, make them blink or move, whether it be banner ads or neon billboards, make them jump out in front of you and wave, covering up the screen until you click in desperation, try to block avoidance-aiding technology like VCRs and DVRs, or just charge extra to avoid the pain…

    There is a fundamental problem here that technology has only exacerbated: that is, the business model is based on selling something nobody wants (ads) to clients (businesses) who aren’t the target audience (viewers/readers) for the product (theoretically, the content, often disrespected as “fill” by its own producers…)

    The problem is compounded when there is a wide mismatch between the sought-after advertisers (large companies with lots of money to spend) and the natural audience for the media — the classic “Depends ads on Saturday morning cartoons” problem — but it really only became critical due to the trackability of the internet. Before, nobody really knew, or cared to invest the massive effort required to determine, what was actually working to get audiences to respond consistently. Now, it’s as easy as logging in to your stats page, or going to pop culture sites and listening to what ordinary audience members are saying about your ads.

    And, ironically, this has the same potential to be the saving of media of all sorts, if they care to make that study investment & heed the results: it’s easier than ever to make sure that relevant ads, and ones that don’t alienate viewers, are presented in a timely and effective way, with truly targeted advertising, thus increasing response rates without tricks & deception! But it does take work, more than just selling space or time at fixed rates…

  11. Moreover, in the “targeting” department, advertising can be coordinated with the subject matter of articles, or features — Google Ads algorithms aren’t quite there yet (resulting in some laughably inapproriate matches) but this is still in its infancy, and a newspaper ought to be able to manage this kind of thing manually, so long as their ad and sales staff were trained & on the ball.

    Will this happen? I doubt it. Classified ad sections didn’t die because of Craigslist, but because newspapers were simply unwilling to invest the effort to make them work: when our local daily put theirs online, they weren’t searchable, or the searches were only marginally functional; they didn’t remove ones that were out-of-date (contributing to the search problems) and they loaded slowly, with no way to filter or sort them by distance-from-reader. When I worked at the weekly, I constantly fielded complaints — from local businesses and from my neighbors — that our own classifieds had the same problem, in both the print and online versions.

    Sadly, I don’t expect reform, I expect them to wither further, complaining all the while — like the grungy “convenience” store with spoiled generic food and filthy shelves who blamed their bankruptcy on the neighborhood renovations, and a clientele that was marginally more mobile, and vocal, than in past decades. Their replacement — bright, clean, responsive — has been going strong for over a decade since.

  12. “Given that the Atlantic’s entire business model rests on its credibility, this is a serious error.”

    This is a big assumption; after the ‘salons’ which the Atlantic was selling became known, it’s likely that their business model is selling their credibility, not retaining it.

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