The Atlantic Gives Niche Publishers a Free Case Study in How NOT to do Advertorial

Chris ware By Christopher Ware, Sr. Director of Business Development at NAIOP

About noon on January 14, The Atlantic posted a sponsored content page for The Church of Scientology.

No big deal, right?  Publications post sponsored content all the time.  Usually no one notices or cares.  The advertiser is happy to get its message out and the publisher is happy to get the revenue.

Only this time the whole thing backfired.  Blogs such as Gawker reported on it under the lovely headline, The Atlantic Is Now Publishing Bizarre, Blatant Scientology Propaganda as ‘Sponsored Content’”.

The controversy continued online, and soon The Atlantic took down the post, writing: “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content.”  The Washington Post ran a full article on the situation the next day and since this is the Internet, nothing is ever really taken offline.  You can view the content here.

Good idea, Bad idea

Good idea: boosting your bottom line with advertorial. Bad idea: running poorly-marked advertorial that doesn’t match your brand

Where did The Atlantic go wrong and how can we learn from their mistakes?

Lesson One – Content Matters:

As the Washington Post notes, “The lede of the piece was decidedly un-Atlantic.”

“2012 was a milestone year for Scientology, with the religion expanding to more than 10,000 Churches, Missions and affiliated groups, spanning 167 nations.”

“Un-Atlantic” is putting is mildly.  It reminded me of reading a press release from the official North Korean news agency.  And if you haven’t checked out the fine writing done by the KCNA, check it out – it’s great fun.

A competent ad rep should have called a time-out and told his client that the content isn’t going to work.  A good rep would have suggested alternative content – maybe something on the church’s community outreach programs, for example.

Lesson Two – Know your brand, know your advertisers

The Church of Scientology isn’t a stranger to controversy.  The advertising team at The Atlantic should have been aware that there are groups like Anonymous, the guys in Guy Fawkes masks, who track the activities of Scientology and are happy to let the world know about it.

I am not suggesting that advertisers should be rejected because they are controversial – I am saying that any content, be it traditional print or advertorial, coming from a potentially controversial source should be subject to an extra round of review.

Advertising should bring in revenue and do no harm your publication’s brand.  Ideally your advertisers should add value to your brand.  But in all cases, trading credibility for money is a bad deal.

Lesson Three – Advertorials must be clearly labeled as such

One of the biggest problems The Atlantic ran into was the content looked exactly like editorial content.  True, it had a box that said “Sponsored Content,” but one would be forgiven for missing it.  The font and format mirrored the editorial content exactly.

The Washington Post runs advertorial inserts, as they noted on their reporting on the controversy.  But the font and format are clearly different from what the Post uses.  And the words “Paid Advertising Supplement” appear prominently.  And as a result almost no one complains.

According to the Washington Post, the advertorial feature was taken offline around 11:30 p.m. the same day it was posted.  In its apology, The Atlantic said that it is “working very hard to put things right.”

What they have to do to “put things right” remains to be seen.  Refunding most if not all of the advertising money is a given.  Rebuilding trust with their readers may be harder.  And finding a way to make advertorials work – well, that’s something we all have to work on.  At least The Atlantic succeeded in showing us how not to do it.


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