The 'Atlantic''s Scientology Misadventure -- & What It Should Mean For Online Advertorials
I’ve always hated the term “native advertising,” ever since I first heard it bandied about last year at a conference and didn’t even understand what it meant. I asked the guy sitting next to me what those on stage were talking about, and ever since he whispered the absurd definition in my ear, I’ve been, metaphorically speaking, wrinkling my nose every time it came up. It’s such a clumsy -- not to mention inaccurate -- way of repackaging that time-honored tradition, the advertorial. Even if the “A” word doesn’t carry the best connotations, at least it’s an honest way to describe advertising’s uncomfortable stray into editorial territory.
“Native advertising,” however, is anything but, because there is nothing native about an ad that is gussied up to look like editorial content. Even though it is labeled as being sponsored, the intent of the term, and everything besides the “sponsored” label, is to obfuscate the reality: that this content is foreign to editorial content, not native at all. If a “native ad” were an organ being transplanted into a human body, the host surely would reject it.
So, for the rest of this column, I’m going to call native ads what they are: advertorials. Please leave your nasty comments below. I promise I won’t delete them.
And that brings me to this week’s advertorial-gone-bad controversy, wherein The Atlantic ran an advertorial which talked about the allegedly great successes of Scientology under the headline, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year. “ Readers who saw this piece of faux-nalism before it was taken down, are to be forgiven for thinking their browser had redirected them to The Onion. Puff pieces certainly don’t fit in with The Atlantic’s pedigree, especially puff pieces on topics so controversial. As it is for many online magazines, a quick search for what The Atlantic has written about Scientology results in a stream of almost universally negative accounts of it.
I’m certainly not going to use this column to wade into a debate about Scientology. However, what The Atlantic’s misadventure shows is how much policing advertorials need. At this writing, The Atlantic hasn’t yet decided how it will handle advertorials in the future, except to say it’s reviewing policy.
But one component of what its new policy should be is painfully clear: that the edit side of The Atlantic’s house -- or any publisher -- needs to have veto power, as the true protector of a publication’s integrity. As this episode so clearly shows, you can’t expect ad salespeople, who aren’t steeped in the whys and wherefores of journalism ethics, to understand just how misguided it is to publish such blatant propaganda, no matter how clearly marked. The fact that no one who OK’ed this advertorial showed the least bit of editorial judgment is evidence of just how widespread the misunderstanding about journalism is.
The reason this story is fodder for The Social Media Insider is that online advertorials often have social components, and that can lead to even further trouble. At The Atlantic, the original sin of publishing the Scientology advertorial was compounded by the ad’s so-called comment section. Though, like most of you, I never got to see the ad before it was pulled, the comments about Scientology were allegedly so uniformly positive as to not be believed, particularly given Scientology’s reputation. (The Atlantic admits the marketing department moderated comments.) The decision to expunge negative comments is so wrong-headed it’s hard to know where to start. Is someone in ad sales at The Atlantic a closet existentialist?
However, even if such a comments section has no reason for being, online advertorials do. It’s no secret that display advertising is failing most publishers as their primary revenue stream, so the rise of online advertorials speak to the need for distinctive advertising that actually pays the bills. But the first obligation online publishers have -- way, way before cashing those hefty checks -- is to make sure that such adventures in custom advertising don’t harm the brand they are trying to sell.
Oh, and even before that, can we -- as an industry -- just go back to calling native ads advertorials? If honesty is the best policy, then advertorials it is.