When advertorial bites back

By Jack Shafer
January 15, 2013

At about noon today, the Atlantic put on a very snug hair shirt, issuing a statement of apology and regret for having posted on its website Church of Scientology “Sponsor Content” yesterday.

The Scientology advertisement, composed by tone-deaf propagandists unable to write a sentence about the church’s alleged worldwide expansion without including a superlative – “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” (twice) – was taken down just before midnight after being up for about 11 hours. (See Erik Wemple’s tick-tock.)

A cached version of the Scientology advertorial is preserved on freiz.it, but be forewarned that there isn’t much there to interest you unless you’re an admirer of the church and love to read nice but bland things about it, or you detest Scientology and enjoy nothing better than to have a good laugh at the church’s expense and that of its “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige. It’s really that lame.

The Atlantic‘s rambling apology, which admits to having “screwed up,” “made a mistake,” “failed to update … policies,” etc., and promises to “put things right,” concerns itself mostly with errors of process without going into what the company’s existing advertising policies might be. But as instant apologies go, it covers the company’s ass for the time being.

Setting aside the substance of the Atlantic‘s advertising policies, the Scientology advertorial illustrates a dual break-down. First, the church misserved itself by producing such a dorky exercise in propaganda. Can its executives and advertising department be so oblivious about how media works that they didn’t know the ad would subject them to ridicule from non-church members and a yawn from the faithful? If I ran the church, I’d be dispatching its copywriters to “The Hole,” Scientology’s alleged reeducation camp in the California desert.

If I ran the Atlantic‘s advertising department – the most frightening thought I’ve had all day! – I’d not have allowed the Church of Scientology to run that ad in the first place. If an ad director decides to accept a customer’s advertising, he doesn’t want one-off business. He wants repeat ads, from the beginning of time to the end, and he therefore looks out for the customer’s interests. Assuming that ad dollars from the Church of Scientology can, in good conscience, be accepted – a view I hold – the Atlantic‘s ad director was remiss in not taking the church aside and saying, “Look, I know you’re suffering a public-relations beating out there with the publication of Lawrence Wright’s expose, Going Clear. But the North Korean quality of this advertorial singing a song of praise to David Miscavige is unwise, and in your best interests I reject it. Let’s see if you can do better.”

The Atlantic was remiss in another way – as are many other websites that publish “sponsor content.” Many advertisers (unwisely) want to make their copy look as much like editorial copy as possible so that naïve readers will confuse it with the genuine thing. In the case of the Scientology advertorial, it is almost indistinguishable from the look and feel of the Atlantic‘s usual editorial copy. The only effort made by either the church or the Atlantic to inform readers that the content came directly from an advertiser was a yellow-shaded “Sponsor Content” notice at the top of the piece and a tag at the bottom. The church and the people in charge at the Atlantic appear to have stupidly co-conspired to muddy the distinction. Shame on both of them for not providing more design clues that the advertorial was a Scientology pitch.

Earlier, I stated that Scientology ad dollars can be collected in good conscience, a judgment I would extend to accepting ad dollars from North Korea, Exxon, nuclear power designers, tobacco companies, gun shows, and the North American Man/Boy Love Association. The principle is simple: Accepting an advertisement implies no endorsement of the advertiser. Taking Ford’s money doesn’t mean a publication can’t or won’t accept money from Chevy – or anti-car groups. Nor does taking Ford money mean an advertiser must take Chevy’s money. It’s the publisher’s house, and he is free to paint it any color he chooses, even Scientology blue, as long as he makes it clear that the paint job is an advertisement.

By the time you read this, the great Scientology advertorial controversy will have largely blown over. The reputation of the Church of Scientology will not have suffered much. Indeed, some would describe its reputation as damage-proof. Readers exposed to the church’s self-promotion will surely recover. The only long-term victim of the controversy will be the Atlantic. As a rule, advertisers want to place their ads in the proximity of a certain type of editorial, with movie ads almost always landing adjacent to movie coverage and gadget ads adjacent to gadget coverage. General interest publications tend to sell a certain kind of reader to advertisers, such as the middle-to-highbrow reader attracted to the Atlantic.

But advertisers also pay for placement in a mix with other advertisers. Tiffany, Cartier, Chanel, and other luxury-goods advertisers hog the opening pages of The New York Times not just because they’re frequently visited but because like-companies want their ads to be seen together to create a virtual agora. Luxury advertisers also want – and The Times obliges them – space that’s free of ads that will debase the environment (herpes medication ads, political advocacy ads, get-rich-quick ads) or undermine their ads (designer knockoff ads, articles about how luxury goods are a scam). By running the loopy Scientology content, the Atlantic has signaled to its upmarket advertisers a disregard for them.

I’d love to read the apology memo the Atlantic FedExed to Madison Avenue.

******

I really wanted to make a “Clear” joke, but I’m too much of a gentleman. Send yours to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and see my Twitter feed for Operating Thetan news. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

 

4 comments

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“Virtual agora” is smooth. We love when you talk Greek to us, Jack.

Also smooth is a send-up by The Onion’ rapid response team, headlined: “[SPONSORED] The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement”

Yes, the holy trinity of “unparalleled,” “unrelenting,” “unprecedented” have cameos. http://t.co/dJ7vYKVm

Posted by Alan_Stamm | Report as abusive

“co-conspired” ? What happened to plain old conspired?

Posted by JakDaw | Report as abusive

This is a bit glib. Doubt seriously you’d take money from *anyone*. (You seem also
a little detached from the whole concept of ” a church with a reeducation camp called ‘the hole’”). You are overlooking the obvious: you are identified in large part by your sponsors, which is why The Atlantic was so stupid in the first place.

Posted by mary57 | Report as abusive

I’m tempted to believe that The Atlantic messed this up deliberately in order to burn Scientology, but is there any serious chance of that?

Posted by Angus_MacDonald | Report as abusive