The Atlantic magazine’s Web site found out the hard way late Monday when it posted an advertorial for the Church of Scientology. Marked as “sponsor content,” the ad lauded the church and the “milestone year” under its leader, David Miscavige.
Bad enough that the ad’s headline style and typeface mimicked those the Atlantic uses for its articles. But in an unusual wrinkle, the Scientology ad also contained a section for readers’ comments, a regular feature of online news stories but rarely used by digital advertisers. The comments, monitored by the magazine’s marketing staff, began with a series of laudatory statements about the controversial church that suspiciously echoed the ad’s copy.
Within a few hours, the Atlantic was steeped in ridicule and outrage via Twitter. The unusual ad also inspired a few “internal conversations” about the propriety of such an arrangement, said a person familiar with the situation. By Tuesday morning, the Scientology advertorial was gone, replaced by a promise to review “policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads,” followed by an apology from the magazine. “We screwed up,” it began. (The advertorial also inspired parodies from the Onion and TechCrunch.)
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology did not return a call for comment.
Journalists have been wary of advertorials for years, and the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Magazine Editors have ethical codes that require publishers to place clear boundaries between news content and advertising.
Some wags declared the Atlantic episode digital advertising’s “Staples Center moment,” a reference to a 1999 incident in which the Los Angeles Times secretly split the ad revenue from an issue of its Sunday magazine devoted to the opening of the Staples Center arena with the owners of the complex. The Times later apologized for what it acknowledged was a breach of newspaper ethics.
Advertorials such as the Scientology ad have been raising related concerns ever since they began popping up in printed form in newspapers and magazines decades ago. If anything, the epochal change from print to digital publishing has only accelerated those issues.
Then as now, the question has been how far publishers should go to enable advertisers to parrot the work of journalists. By dressing up as editorial content, advertorials exist primarily to disarm, if not fool, readers and viewers.
“It is widely known that people give more credibility to editorial content than to paid advertisements,” says Advertorial.org, a company that creates program-length TV commercials and advertorials, in a Web ad for itself. “After all, anyone can claim that their own product is the best. But editorial content suggests that someone else has endorsed your product or service.”
Until the Atlantic’s Scientology ad, the most infamous online advertorial may have been Sony’s “feature by Sony” campaign in 2002. The consumer electronics giant spent $10 million to seed dozens of Web sites with ads that looked and read like conventional travel articles.
One ad, which appeared on NationalGeographic.com’s news site, described “an avuncular retiree’s” RV trip to Arizona; the story-ad wove in subtle references to still cameras, camcorders and other digital tools, all of which were described in detail in a sidebar. The only indication that the entire page was a paid advertisement was a faint overline at the top reading, “feature by Sony.” Some Web sites declined to take the ads, saying they weren’t sufficiently flagged as advertising.
Nevertheless, “there’s a certain amount of subterfuge implicit in the idea of advertorial content,” said Edward Wasserman, the dean of the University of California at Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism. “Advertisers wouldn’t do it if it didn’t convey greater authority and persuasiveness” than a typical ad.
The Church of Scientology, which has been the subject of many journalistic investigations into its practices, hoped to provide “a counternarrative” about itself by mimicking a journalistic format, Wasserman said. A conventional ad would not have had the same power. “I can’t say that it was deceptive, but they were paying for the allure and authority” of the Atlantic, he added.
The Washington Post has distributed advertorials for many companies, organizations and national governments for years, including multi-page inserts purchased by the governments of Russia and China.
“ChinaWatch,” which appeared 12 times in The Post last year, and “Russia Now” (seven issues) include favorable articles about tourism, business and culture in each country. They ignore such topics as internal crackdowns on political dissidents and press freedom.
A Post spokeswoman, Kris Coratti, said the newspaper gives advertisers “wide latitude” in portraying themselves but requires supplements to be clearly labeled as advertising (“ChinaWatch,” for example, prominently describes itself as “a paid supplement to The Washington Post”). The paper makes it “clear to readers that we did not create or endorse the content,” she said.
Patrick Pexton, the newspaper’s ombudsman, said he finds it “troubling” that The Post receives revenue from a foreign government, “especially China.” But he said only “one or two” readers complain when the Chinese advertorials appear, usually members of the Falun Gong sect, which has long protested Chinese oppression. He said he has never had a complaint about the Russian supplement. As for its potential effect on The Post’s newsroom, Pexton said, “I have not seen any evidence that this affects the way The Post [reports] about China.”