Last night The Atlantic posted a sponsored article on Scientology titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” It was exactly what it sounds like — an celebratory ad for Scientology, complete with overwhelmingly positive comments from readers.
The article was also formatted exactly like any other Atlantic piece — save “sponsor content” written at the top — so people started questioning the ethics of it. And just as soon as people started criticizing the article, the Atlantic yanked the piece (here is a Google cache version of it).
As Poynter notes, Jay Lauf, publisher of The Atlantic, recently spoke in a positive way about sponsored content. “A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more… It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.”
Part of the reason the post created such a stir is that it was about Scientology — which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly beloved. We can’t see a similar article about Nutty Bars (SPONSORED CONTENT: Those things are great!) getting people so upset. The other part is that native ads such as these are still a relatively new way of doing things. And while Lauf might think everyone is cool with ads that look exactly like articles, clearly they are not.
We’ve reached out to The Atlantic about the incident and we’ll update when we hear back.
UPDATE (12:20 pm):
We just received this official statement from The Atlantic:
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 we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.