January 15, 2013

At around noon yesterday, The Atlantic posted an advertorial package for the Church of Scientology. The promotional piece spoke of Scientology’s growth and the key role of the church’s “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. Its timing was not curious, in that it hit the Atlantic site just days before the release of an exhaustive investigative book by the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright on Scientology. Whatever the timing of the advertorial, it took a rough ride on the Internet yesterday and is now gone from the Atlantic’s site.
UPDATE: Late this morning, The Atlantic apologized for the episode, saying that it had “made a mistake, possibly several mistakes.”
Some facts about the imbroglio:

  • The package was posted online at 12:25 p.m. The lede of the piece was decidedly un-Atlantic: “2012 was a milestone year for Scientology, with the religion expanding to more than 10,000 Churches, Missions and affiliated groups, spanning 167 nations — figures that represent a growth rate 20 times that of a decade ago.”
  • The piece was classified as “sponsor content,” hardly a novel approach to generating online revenue. Natalie Raabe, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic, says that such “native ads” are making their way onto TheAtlantic.com on a “regular basis,” though figures weren’t immediately available.
  • Native ads are critical to The Atlantic’s livelihood. They are one element of digital advertising revenue, which in 2012 accounted for a striking 59 percent of the brand’s overall advertising revenue haul. Unclear just how much of the digital advertising revenue stems from sponsor content. We’re working on that.
  • Though the Atlantic has done many such advertorial packages in the past, Raabe says that it hasn’t received complaints — at least that she’s aware of.
  • This is the first such package that The Atlantic has done with Scientology.
  • Comments! 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 outcry over the Scientology post trickled up to the level of the Atlantic’s president, M. Scott Havens.
  • The advertorial feature was taken offline around 11:30 p.m.
    In its apology, The Atlantic said that it is “working very hard to put things right.”
Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.