January 30, 2013

(Edward Linsmier/Getty Images)

 

In mid-January, the Atlantic screwed up by running a thinly disguised advertorial for the Church of Scientology. After the magazine eliminated the presentation from the Internet, it issued a line of explanation that made it sound like a classic Washington publication:

We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand.

In a discussion with the Erik Wemple Blog, a top Atlantic official said of the mag’s mea culpa: “It’s a general apology for not having thought this through overall.”

Well, never let it be said that the Atlantic isn’t a proficient generator of internal guidelines. Because here’s a road map for the avoidance of future Scientologies. The central contribution of the new guidelines is a commitment to creating stark borders around advertorials:

As with all advertising, Sponsor Content ultimately reflects the views and choices of the advertiser—not of The Atlantic or its editors. Accordingly, The Atlantic will prominently display the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘SPONSOR CONTENT.’ The Atlantic will additionally include the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘This article is written by or on behalf of our Sponsor and not by The Atlantic’s editorial staff.’  The Atlantic may additionally include, in certain areas and platforms, further explanation defining Sponsor Content to Atlantic readers. In addition, The Atlantic will ensure the treatment and design of Advertising and Sponsor Content is clearly differentiated from its editorial content.

The trouble with those principles: The brighter the lines delineating the content as “sponsored,” the less likely big-money advertisers are to bite on the deal. That’s the dirty little reality of advertorials. Here’s to hoping that the Atlantic manages to close many such deals with these fresh strictures, for the Erik Wemple Blog endorses the diversion of funds from entities that write over-the-top promotional prose to the pockets of writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Molly Ball.

What really torpedoed the Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial, however, were the comments. People who revolted at the syrupy pro-Scientology writing in the piece tried to state their objections in the comments section, only to find that there was some moderation going on. An Atlantic official told the Erik Wemple Blog that the magazine’s marketing staff was messing with the comments. Here’s how the magazine proposes to address the issue:

The Atlantic may in its sole discretion enable readers to comment on Sponsor Content on The Atlantic’s sites. If comment functionality is enabled on Sponsor Content, the sponsor will not have any role in moderating such comments. The only moderation of such comments will be performed by Atlantic employees who implement The Atlantic’s generally applicable Terms and
Conditions (http://www.theatlantic.com/terms-and-conditions/)—which prohibit spam, obscenity, hate speech, and similar content—elsewhere on the site.

Unspecified is just who would do the moderation here — marketing people, editorial people, administrative people? Better yet: Just bag the comments on advertorials.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.