The Atlantic Apologizes for 'Screw Up' on Scientology Advertorial

Trendy Native Ads Ape Editorial but Risk Alienating Readers

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The Atlantic has taken down a sponsored post promoting the Church of Scientology following an eruption of criticism Monday night.

"We screwed up," The Atlantic said in a statement Tuesday morning. "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 that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right. "

The chief mistake was failing to come up with a plan for reader comments, which were enabled for the advertorial, according to one person at The Atlantic. A moderator was in place but soon became stuck in the position of either permitting plenty of negative remarks on a paid ad or censoring readers, the person said. The Atlantic will also review whether the advertorial's presentation sufficiently distinguished it from standard editorial content.

Here's how the beginning of the ad looked on The Atlantic's site:

The incident demonstrates the risks around the trendy approach of "native advertising," in which marketers pay for content that looks a lot like a given site's editorial articles. Native ads are very similar to traditional advertorials -- some would say identical -- but have taken new hold recently as marketers worry about how many people even notice standard ad units on the web.

The ads try to engage readers by aping the style of the site they're on, sometimes lending an aura of editorial authority to paid, promotional content in the process. That, of course, is part of the appeal to marketers, but The Atlantic may have calculated that its post promoting Scientology was damaging its reputation.

The lengthy post, headlined "David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year," reported that Scientology was expanding at a record pace, driven by Mr. Miscavige. "He has led a renaissance for the religion itself, while driving worldwide programs to serve communities through Church-sponsored social and humanitarian initiatives," it said.

Like previous native ads on The Atlantic's site, the "Milestone Year" post resembled an Atlantic article but for a tag above the headline reading "Sponsor Content" and text at the bottom that said "Sponsor content presented by The Church of Scientology" above a Scientology symbol.

The advertorial came as publicity surged around a new book called "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," which The New York Times said was "full of wild stories and accusations about both L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, and David Miscavige, his volatile successor."

Some people defended the advertorial. "Nothing outrageous at @TheAtlantic," one person wrote on Twitter. "This content is clearly labeled as an advertisement."

But the louder reaction was negative. "'Sponsor content' articles belong in airplane magazines, not a formerly distinguished venue for reporting," another observer tweeted.

Two media contacts for the Church of Scientology did not immediately respond to inquiries Tuesday morning.

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