Blog Post

What the Atlantic learned from Scientology: native advertising is harder for news brands

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

You have to feel for the Atlantic. One poor decision has made it a case study in how not to embrace a popular advertising trend — even though many other publications could have gotten away with the same ad.

At an ad industry event in New York on Wednesday, an Atlantic Digital executive explained what the company had learned from a January debacle involving the Church of Scientology. (In case you missed it, the Atlantic pushed the boundaries of so-called “native advertising” by publishing a feel-good “sponsored story” about the religion — or cult, if you prefer — that included only positive reader comments.)

“The biggest mistake in retrospect was that it wasn’t harmonious to our site and it didn’t bring any value to our readers,” said VP and General Manager Kimberly Lau, at the event, which was hosted by native ad shop Sharethrough. “The second mistake was allowing the marketing team to moderate comments in a way that wasn’t transparent.”

Lau’s comments echo the Atlantic’s earlier apologies for the incident which, by all appearances, was a one-off mistake. But her remarks stand out because of where she made them: on a panel with representatives from Gawker, Vice and College Humor — three publications that regularly mix advertising into their editorial process and that expressed sympathy for the Atlantic’s predicament.

“There’s no other way to make money without doing this kind of advertising,” said Vice’s CCO Eddy Moretti, who added that Vice would have run the Scientology story. Meanwhile, Jason Del of Gawker (“a full-service content, event and video shop”) suggested that part of the blowback to the Scientology story came about because the sponsored format was novel to its readers.

So is all this unfair to the Atlantic —  so-called native advertising is a lifeline for publishers, why can’t it cash in like everyone else? The problem, as Lau explained, is:

“It goes back to the difference between entertainment and journalism,” she said. “There’s a higher bar for a brand like the Atlantic.”

This goes to the crux of the matter — sites that cater to comedy, entertainment or celebrity news can inject sponsored fare into their streams with relative safety. Serious news and intellectual publications, however, must take extra care to preserve the integrity of their editorial content.

In the bigger picture, this extra scrutiny of news brands may limit their ability to garner new online income. But the good news, for the Atlantic at least, is that the company has been profitable for several years and, according to Lau, 59 percent of its overall advertising revenue is digital.

Speaking of native advertising, be sure to attend paidContent Live this April where Andrew Sullivan and other leading media figures will discuss their business strategies, including native advertising.

(Image by Phuriphat via Shutterstock)

4 Responses to “What the Atlantic learned from Scientology: native advertising is harder for news brands”

  1. northernneighbor

    The ethical dilemma (as I see it) inherent in this form of advertizing is that it employs a certain degree of deception. The deception is not only intentional

  2. Synthia Elizabeth Fagen

    As a Scientology watcher, I do not believe that ANY publication could get away with appearing to shill for them in anyway especially if a comment section were allowed.

    The biggest mistake that the Atlantic made (in addition to and senior to the two above) is not doing their research and not being aware of just how poorly thought of is the Church of Scientology.

    There are a plethora of horrendous stories coming out weekly about them and currently there are two national (and one international) best selling books on the alleged atrocities committed by this “church”.

    No, the Atlantic just got in bed with a vilified organization that has many, many detractors who are upset that their abuses are allowed to continue. Any publication that takes money from the Church of Scientology (if discovered) will get skewered.

    Seller beware.

    • Robert Service

      Don’t mind Ms. Fagen. She was a hardcore fanatical Scientologist who worked as an IAS Membership Officer for the CoS Chicago and literally robbed countless gullible Scientologists on behalf of the Church. In other words, her job revolved around taking money from others in exchange for nothing. Rumor has it she got kicked out of the Church for suspicious financial dealings.

      Ignore her and the anti-Scientology clowns. They’re just as bad as the Scienotologists, if not worse (some of the horror stories coming from people involved with ex-Scientologists like Fagen are truly frightening), and they’re a cult unto themselves.

      Anyway, the only mistake The Atlantic made here was apologizing to their pretentious, self-absorbed readership. Their claim that there is a higher bar for The Atlantic is sheer nonsense. Every news publication in print and on the Web utilizes sponsored content, and with services like Taboola taking the lead in the redistribution market, the sponsored content revenue model will the de facto method of serious profit-making for news sites.

  3. As an advertising professional, I would like to add two things to this article, 1) The ad that the planet ran Scientology, was conceptionally no different then he adds it Lenick runs for IBM, meaning, both put the advertiser in a positive light. To suggest that Scientology sponsored content was any different in that regard, then any of the in my next other sponsored content advertisers, is an incorrect assessment. 2) The Atlantic’s biggest blunder here, was preaching their contract with the advertiser. I’m not sure why little has been written about that aspect, but that single act puts in question the stability of the sponsored content format for all advertisers.