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What we can learn from The Atlantic‘s sponsored content debacle

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Much of the buzz in the online media world over the past few months has been about “native” advertising — a term that many people use to describe what used to be called “advertorial” in the old print-media days: in other words, content that is created by an advertiser and designed to mimic the content produced by a publisher. Although many see this as the future of online advertising, it brings with it some risks, and The Atlantic has just produced a great example of what some of those risks are.

On Monday, a number of sources discovered an article that had been published on Atlantic Media’s website about the Church of Scientology, and unlike much of what gets written about L. Ron Hubbard’s manufactured religion, it was a long and glowing piece about how well the church was doing — complete with positive comments congratulating the church (Gawker has screenshots of the original piece here). It soon became obvious that the story was sponsored content produced by the church, and Twitter and the blogosphere erupted in outrage.

“Seriously, that is ad-whoredom of a particularly egregious variety. The Atlantic is now partly sponsored by the Church of Scientology?” — former Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan

Are all sponsored posts bad, or just that one?

After much debate on Twitter and elsewhere over the ethics of this kind of publishing, The Atlantic eventually took the piece down, and replaced it with a statement saying that it planned to review “our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” In a follow-up statement to a number of outlets, the magazine said: “We screwed up… 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.”


So what was the Atlantic‘s offence in this case — was it that sponsored content isn’t appropriate at all, or that the magazine didn’t make it obvious enough that it was advertorial? Or is it that Scientology isn’t an appropriate subject for sponsored content, or not appropriate for The Atlantic? Depending on where you look, you can find arguments for all of those positions and more (we’re going to be talking about this topic with Justin Smith of Atlantic Media, Jon Steinberg from BuzzFeed and Lewis D’Vorkin from Forbes at our paidContent media conference in New York on April 17).


For the digital-media industry, however, “native” advertising is one of the few bright spots — or potential bright spots — in a landscape that is riddled with charts of ad revenue that are going in exactly the wrong direction. And it’s not just traditional media outlets like Forbes or The Atlantic that are experimenting: it’s also a critical part of new-media models at places like BuzzFeed, and even at social networks like Facebook (s fb) and Twitter. Promoted tweets and sponsored stories are very much like “native” advertising, because they are inserted into the stream of regular content a user consumes.


For native ads to work, they need to blend in

I think the big lesson from The Atlantic brouhaha is that — as Charlie Warzel points out at Ad Week — using sponsored content as one of the core components of your media strategy really ups the ante when it comes to figuring out whether an advertiser fits with your brand. What seemed to horrify many people (although not The New Republic) was the idea that a magazine they respected would provide a platform to what they see as a dangerous cult. In other words, there seemed to be a mismatch between the brand of the magazine and the brand of the thing it was helping to promote.

Similar complaints have been made about some of the content that appears at Forbes, where chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin has created a sponsored-content style service called Brand Voice: in effect, Forbes provides brands and advertisers with a platform that is fundamentally identical — in both look and feel — to the one the magazine’s own bloggers get. That content lives or dies based on the same criteria as the magazine’s regular bloggers, namely whether it is relevant and useful to readers. But more traditional media players have criticized the magazine for diluting its brand in this way.


In the end, most online media and content companies will have no choice but to experiment with sponsored content and other forms of “native” advertising, because there just isn’t enough money coming from the traditional kind in our new world of unlimited supply and falling demand. But as The Atlantic‘s experience shows, it is easy to go astray, and the only way to avoid that kind of disaster is to keep your readers in mind: sponsored content has to be as useful as the kind you produce, if not more so, and it has to be aligned with your brand, or it will fail — sometimes spectacularly.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr/Stephen Brace and Shutterstock/Gl0ck

16 Responses to “What we can learn from The Atlantic‘s sponsored content debacle”

  1. Tom E. Benson

    I was a magazine publisher (Midwest Living magazine) until ’98. What has happened to ASME rules/guidelines? They demanded a different typeface and a clear statement in xpoint size at the top that this is sponsored information? Seemed to work quite well. And it should be clear that the sponsor should be in the same ballpark as the editor….Scientology? What did the editor think about this? In my experience, I would NEVER do anything the editor would not approve, even if it was paid advertising. That relationship kept the magazine “clean” from messages that did not fit the mission of the magazine.

  2. Myriad O'Truble

    My God — you online content people are a bunch of frigging hypocrites. When are any of you smartphone shackled infants going to get a real job? The happiest day of my life will be when all this phony web propaganda shyte implodes like a haystack in Arizona. The Atlantic is a propaganda cult itself. I’m not surprised that it would hook up with another propaganda cult called Scientology. But that’s going to be covered by all the propaganda cults on the Techmeme leaderboard. Different sides of the same coin, that’s all.

  3. what we actually need is journalism that is non-profit that derives its revenue from its consumers. media mostly gets its money from advertisements and click-thru rates and are a for profit enterprise. journalists have constitutional protection, as the fourth estate, because they are often at odds with what the government distributes through the media. if you want independence, you have to be free from the need to make a profit. Democracy Now! is a good example of this model. It would be nice if there existed a technology/startup focused site with these foundations.

  4. Wandered in here via a link from a friend – several things struck me but mostly the words “unlimited supply and falling demand.” I have had much to say for years about attention span and the length of cuts in audiovisual media (count the cuts in a commercial, for example) since each can arguably represent a new message. Better yet, start paying attention to how often the morning news shows cover “new and useful” household items which are them advertised during the commercial breaks. The time-honored practice of celebrities (and politicians) hitting the talk shows whenever something new is coming out is more prevalent than ever – so when exactly do the commercials STOP? Never, that’s when. Now go read a straight news piece from whichever publication floats your boat and find the lack of bias. It doesn’t exist. Even what passes for balance is now bias.

  5. Peter D.

    All sponsored content should have the words Paid Advertisement prominently displayed. I am surprised they continue to display Goldman Sachs sponsored stories of economic progress which is equally rich in irony.

  6. Ranjan Roy

    You make the correct point that Promoted Posts and Sponsored Tweets are definitely forms of sponsored content, and that blending in isn’t deceptive, it’s the exact point and value of the medium.

    The Atlantic has been making grand statements about their commitment to sponsored content for a while now, especially with Quartz, but it’s been pretty clear that any sponsored content is essentially a second-class citizen to original editorial for a while now. I love reading Quartz in general but have never remotely been tempted to share any of their seemingly random Chevron pieces, etc.

  7. Wow…let’s call something “sponsored content” because if we called it what it is…..just a big freaking advertisement, no one would read it.

    If a publication or industry thinks so poorly of advertising that is must camouflage it, it shouldn’t run it. It should get out of the business.

    And let’s get rid of the term “native advertising”. It’s more appropriately called “borderline deceptive advertising”, because it seeks to hide the source of the content.