Atlantic: Sorry about that Scientology ad

posted at 2:31 pm on January 15, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

At least The Atlantic didn’t opt for the passive “Mistakes were made” in its mea culpa today. After taking a beating on Twitter and in the on-line community, the magazine pulled a controversial ad for the Church of Scientology and apologized to its readers:

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.

For those who missed the media debate over the last 24 hours or so, the venerable magazine sold what is known as “sponsor content” to the Church of Scientology for self-promotion — in this case, over-the-top self-congratulatory promotion.  “Sponsor content” is not a new phenomenon, not in print, broadcast, or digital channels; in print and digital, it tends to look like normal content with a disclaimer at the top.  That’s exactly what The Atlantic provided, too:

So what was the problem?  First, it was the advertiser itself.  Scientology isn’t a terribly popular organization for all sorts of reasons, and the similarity in presentation to normal articles immediately raised eyebrows.  The timing of the sponsor content looked strange, too (although probably not from Scientology’s point of view), as a new book about the organization by New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright will come out next week, and it’s not expected to be very complimentary.  The Tampa Bay Times also just released an extensive series on abuses within Scientology’s Sea Org over the weekend, a point that numerous Twitter users made after seeing The Atlantic’s splashy ad.

Running the ad in the first place was a public-relations problem, but The Atlantic compounded it by allowing their advertising team to moderate comments on the ad so that no criticisms got approved for posting.  Eric Wemple reports on this aspect of the debacle:

Comments! Commentators sniffed close moderation of the comments on the Scientology piece. Here’s some history on the topic: Advertorial sponsors in the past haven’t always opted to activate comments on their posts, according to Raabe. Makes a lot of sense, given all the abuse that can pile up in that territory, not to mention the labor required to clean it all up. In the case of the Scientology post, says [Atlantic spokesperson Natalie] Raabe, “Our marketing team was monitoring some of the comments.” The incident, she adds, “has brought to light policies on how we monitor sponsor content.”

That’s the bigger problem.  Why turn comments on at all?  It’s an advertisement, after all, not an article or column.  That contributed to the impression that The Atlantic was flacking for Scientology, and given the intervention by Atlantic staff to squelch negative feedback in the comments, that’s not an unjustified conclusion regardless of whether this was “sponsor content” or not.

Should The Atlantic have refused the advertising in the first place? Jeff Berovici at Forbes says that’s a potential slippery slope:

The vehemence of the backlash here and the swiftness of The Atlantic’s reaction have telescoped what are really two issues into one, so let’s unpack it. The first is: Should The Atlantic be taking advertising from Scientology?

A lot of people would say it shouldn’t. A lot of people would also say responsible media companies shouldn’t take ad dollars from oil companies, gun makers, fast food chains, junk food manufacturers, foreign governments with questionable human rights records, etc., or from financial firms with ties to any of the foregoing. (Indeed, Salon’s Alex Pareene asks on Twitter, “Why is ‘sponsor content’ from Scientology so much more horrible than ‘sponsor content’ from, say, Shell?”)

For the most part, mainstream media organizations reserve the right to accept all these types of advertising while refusing any individual ads they deem offensive or unethical. Even The New York Times, which styles itself the gold standard in most matters, doesn’t have any explicit policies that would prevent it from taking Scientology’s dollars (unless you count the rule against advertising “occult pursuits,” and I’m not going near that one).

Well, they certainly have the right to refuse advertising space.  Given the controversial nature of the organization, I’m sure that The Atlantic is worried now that the damage done far outstrips the payment received (and since the ad got suspended, they may have to send the check back anyway).  There is a fine line for publications with broad-based content as to what they may or may not want to include in its presentations, but I’d say that the calculation is probably going to be oriented at most general-interest publications toward the revenue rather than the reputation, except in extreme circumstances.  Did this qualify as “extreme”?  Based on reaction outside and inside the Atlantic, the retrospective answer is affirmative.

Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air



Trackback URL


I swear everytime I see a picture of that guy – I think of the miniseries V and wait for him to pull his face off and reveal a lizard.

gophergirl on January 15, 2013 at 2:32 PM

I don’t know many people getting involved in Scientology these days. I think they are lying.

Blake on January 15, 2013 at 2:37 PM

With all that is infuriating in DC, we are supposed to give a hot minute of concern about this? Usually the non-paid content of these rags is nothing but propaganda disguised as news. Yawn.

karenhasfreedom on January 15, 2013 at 2:37 PM

That’s the bigger problem. Why turn comments on at all? It’s an advertisement, after all, not an article or column.

Indeed. I’m not a big fan of the way sponsor content gets hidden as much as possible but- other than screaming at your TV or computer screen, what good could come of comments. Heavily moderated would apt to be favorable to the ad itself and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for sponsors to fake comment to back up their ad. Happens with on-line reviews all the time.

Happy Nomad on January 15, 2013 at 2:40 PM

“But at least we’re not as bad as those bloggers who promote all sorts of cults and conspiracy theories. They do that because they believe it, whereas we do it for money, so that’s OK.”

Socratease on January 15, 2013 at 2:42 PM

So, The Atlantic is still in existence? Why?

Pork-Chop on January 15, 2013 at 2:42 PM

I don’t know many people getting involved in Scientology these days. I think they are lying.

Blake on January 15, 2013 at 2:37 PM

I could see that garbage filling the religious void in Europe. They’ve become suckers for everything over there.

Flange on January 15, 2013 at 2:43 PM

I could see that garbage filling the religious void in Europe. They’ve become suckers for everything over there.

Flange on January 15, 2013 at 2:43 PM

Except in Germany – isn’t it illegal there?

Ward Cleaver on January 15, 2013 at 2:48 PM

They could cure this by not moderating the comments.

unclesmrgol on January 15, 2013 at 2:51 PM

I could see that garbage filling the religious void in Europe. They’ve become suckers for everything over there.

Flange on January 15, 2013 at 2:43 PM

What religious void? They’re all muslims and perfectly happy with their islamic overlords.

NapaConservative on January 15, 2013 at 2:54 PM

The grounds are being tested for similarly hostile treatment of conservative advertising during election season. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

Disclaimer: No position on Scientology itself.

Archivarix on January 15, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Only narcissistic 1%ers can become Scientologists.

22044 on January 15, 2013 at 3:00 PM

The Atlantic and their associated web sites have the worst and most manipulative moderating of comments I’ve ever seen on the web short of the most partisan of propaganda websites.

MechanicalBill on January 15, 2013 at 3:03 PM

Isn’t this the rag that was leading the Journolist investigation of Sarah Palin’s gynecologist? Didn’t think they could be embarrassed.

sauldalinsky on January 15, 2013 at 3:10 PM

For those who missed the Inside-the-Beltway,Gossip-Oriented media debate over the last 24 hours or so,

Fixed it for you, Ed.

Do you REALLY think this drivel is what draws conservatives to Hot Air?

PolAgnostic on January 15, 2013 at 3:13 PM


Tim_CA on January 15, 2013 at 3:18 PM

I don’t see what the big deal is. It clearly says it’s sponsored content, which the Church is obviously free to purchase. I don’t understand the outrage.

changer1701 on January 15, 2013 at 3:29 PM

I’m sure The Atlantic views itself with some respect as a thoughtful and intelligent organization. Then when they remembered that ScienTology attracts only the weakest minds of the population,they perceived their folly.

Are the Scientards still using a big Christian cross as the “T” in Scientology?

If you are approached by them for a free assessment, do them a favor, kick their a$$.

[email protected] on January 15, 2013 at 3:36 PM

New editor-in-chief wanted?

The Rogue Tomato on January 15, 2013 at 3:37 PM

I live in CA, the cereal bowl of the US (fruits, flakes and nuts). When someone uninformed starts talking to me about their curiosity in Scientology I always ask them if they know that in Ron L Hubbard’s book he seriously writes that an alien spaceship is going to come and pick all the Scientologists up at some time. “Armed with that tidbit of knowledge, please continue to explore your curiosity in Scientology”.

NapaConservative on January 15, 2013 at 3:46 PM

If it wasn’t for the difference in birth and death dates, I would swear that Obama is the reincarnation of L. Ron. However, nothing is impossible in that arena, and there just has to be another con-man somewhere who croaked in 1961.

dockywocky on January 15, 2013 at 4:48 PM

I swear everytime I see a picture of that guy – I think of the miniseries V and wait for him to pull his face off and reveal a lizard.

gophergirl on January 15, 2013 at 2:32 PM

Except in Germany – isn’t it illegal there?

Ward Cleaver on January 15, 2013 at 2:48 PM

Hey, I can put 2 and 2 together.

I’m now scanning news items for lizard landings in Munich.

Boggles my mind how grownups can swallow the Thetan mythology of that washed-up fantasy (NOT science fiction) writer.

Maybe I’m just a sore loser because I flunked my E-meter tests.

fred5678 on January 15, 2013 at 6:03 PM

Not refused the ad, but had specific font and layout guidelines that clearly differentiate news content from sponsors. And yes, turn off the stupid comments.

John the Libertarian on January 15, 2013 at 6:26 PM

Given the controversial nature of the organization,

Ed, name one organization in America that isn’t controversial. By that standard, no organization’s advertising should ever be accepted by any publication.

keep the change on January 15, 2013 at 7:26 PM

James Ledbetter [email protected]

Who’d possibly have been well-served by Scientology advertorial? Not the Church, not the Atlantic, argues @jackshafer

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, 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.

canopfor on January 15, 2013 at 8:01 PM