Atlantic: Sorry about that Scientology ad

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.