How NOT to Do Native Advertising: The Atlantic Runs Scientology Advertorial

So, last week we took the time to lecture our readers on the nature of native advertising–and this week’s biggest media “scandal” conveniently gives us an opportunity to show everyone how not to do it.

In summary: Established magazine The Atlantic, long a home to respectable journalism, ran a sponsored post that was little more than an official release from the Church of Scientology.

The church is scrambling to get some good press before journalist Lawrence Wright‘s upcoming expose Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief hits the nation’s bookstores and e-readers. The post itself amounted to a comical report about how leader David Miscavige has helped the church expand its membership; it included little beyond (obviously staged) photos documenting the recent openings of Scientology “centers” around the world.

And that’s not all: The Atlantic also carefully monitored the story’s comments section, erasing many of the (overwhelmingly negative) comments from users before closing them down altogether. Bad move, guys.

Now it’s damage control time!

The post is no longer available on the site; the link now leads to a message reading:

We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.
In other words, “we made a dumb move that angered our readers, and now we’re sorry”. You know what, though? We don’t have much sympathy for The Atlantic in this case. Today brought a further apology in which the magazine’s media contact admitted that “It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism” for the company to realize that this advertorial was a mistake.
We agree. In our native ad post, we noted that the biggest challenges in the practice are twofold:
  • Determining which sites would be best for your client/brand’s content
  • Creating content that actively promotes the brand and also feels like a natural or “native” fit for the target sites

These challenges come from the brand’s perspective, but they also apply to the venue where the ads appear–and whoever approved the story for The Atlantic‘s website obviously did not consider either point.

The lesson here: Native ads or advertorials can be great for both the brand and the partner publication–but only if they appeal to the audience in question. If you don’t plan your content carefully then you run the risk of getting burned like The Atlantic did this week.

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