The Atlantic’s Scientology Fail
It looked like an article and read like an article. But it wasn’t an article.
Instead, a piece on the Atlantic’s website, packed with praise for Scientology, was anything but. It was purchased by the controversial cult that has been accused of kidnapping, swindling, imprisoning and brainwashing members.
The result was embarrassment for reputable magazine like The Atlantic when it appeared that it was publishing press releases gussied up to look like actual articles. It’s not the first publication to do this kind of advertorial content but when it appeared so much like an actual article and on behalf of such a controversial client, it created an uproar.
The Monday advertisement hailed the leader of Scientology, David Miscavige. The only tip-off that this wasn’t journalism was a small yellow badge that said “sponsor content,” as well as the fact that readers couldn’t freely comment. It was headlined “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” and then went on to copiously praise Miscavige for his leadership efforts in expanding the church–as befit a paid advertisement placed by Scientology. It only stayed up for 12 hours before it was yanked and replaced with a notice from the Atlantic stating “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”
The Atlantic then issued a fuller statement on Tuesday. It said:
We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. 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 the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.
In the meantime, the Atlantic had attracted all sorts of criticism about its ad, which seemed to be timed to coincide with the publication of a critical book about Scientology by Lawrence Wright. One of the Atlantic’s top reporters, Jeffrey Goldberg, went out of his way to write a blog post praising Wright’s book, and the fiasco attracted all sorts of Twitter snark.
The problem is not whether the Atlantic should allow the Church of Scientology to advertise. It’s a free country. The question is the Atlantic should have allowed this kind of “advertorial” content. The answer to that is: of course not. It doesn’t matter if the content came from a corporation or a church, it is unacceptable for any publication. Advertising is advertising, news is news and the twain shall never meet. The Atlantic crossed those lines and, regardless if it was used to sell the Galactic Lord Xenu or Girl Scout Cookies, it was unacceptable.
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