On Monday afternoon, The Atlantic posted a piece titled, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” At first glance, the assumption is that you’re going to read another scathing report on the shady dealings of the Church of Scientology and that this headline was sarcasm. But when you looked a little closer, there is a tag at the top of the piece that labeled it as “Sponsor Content.” The “story” is a glowing review of Scientology’s “ecclesiastical leader,” David Miscavige.
What the hell is going on?
Well, it appears that The Atlantic has gotten, shall we say, creative in trying to find new revenue.
UPDATE: Atlantic releases a statement of apology. See it after the jump…
Inserting sponsored content into websites is the newest revenue stream for online publications, but this was something different. Buzzfeed and HuffPost have streamlined the process of slipping in sponsored material while making it clear that it’s a commercial. Clearly, that method was lost in translation for The Atlantic. Not only did they present this story in the manner that they did, they also moderated comments to prevent people from negatively reacting to the piece.
Reaction to their blatant shilling for the Church of Scientology was quick and harsh. Even their own social media editor, Chris Heller, tweeted, “I am furious.” Former Atlantic scribe, Jared Keller also weighed in on Twitter.
I worked at @theatlantic. I suspect that a) nobody on the edit team knew about this, and b) that they’re all unspeakably ripshit over it.
— Jared Keller (@jaredbkeller) January 15, 2013
It didn’t take long for The Atlantic to realize how big it had screwed up. As Poynter points out, they took the “sponsor content” down and replaced it with a message saying, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”
In other words, their foray into the world of sponsor content was a colossal failure. We’re still awaiting comment from a publicist, who is no doubt drowning in media requests and figuring out the best way to deal with this public relations shitstorm.
Statement from The Atlantic:
Regarding an advertisement from the Church of Scientology that appeared on TheAtlantic.com on January 14:
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.