Holy smokescreen! The Atlantic pulls Scientology post after backlash

An online post lauding the great success of Scientology was pulled from the Atlantic website late Monday night after a public backlash over the way the advertorial article was presented.

The piece, sponsored by the controversial Church of Scientology, appeared in many respects identical to journalistic content posted to the site. Small notes at the top and bottom of the article identified it as “sponsored content,” but it was otherwise indistinguishable.

Poynter.org captured and image of the original page, including the full story and two links to stories posted on the Church of Scientology's homepage.

Screen cap of the Atlantic online

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The article itself reads like a press release, not surprising once one is aware it was paid for by the pseudo-religion.

It begins:

2012 was a milestone year for Scientology, with the religion expanding to more than 10,000 Churches, Missions and affiliated groups, spanning 167 nations--figures that represent a growth rate 20 times that of a decade ago.

The article goes on the celebrate leader David Miscavige and laud various new churches that opened last year.

The backlash on Twitter was almost instantaneous. The advertisement was retweeted thousands of times as scores of social media users panned the seemingly-covert way it had been presented.

The Atlantic, a respected 155-year-old publication, pulled the piece following a vitriolic backlash on social media and replaced it with a note reading:

We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.

The Church of Scientology is, of course, the highly-questioned organization best known for its celebrity pitchmen, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Its practices and controversies are the focus of an upcoming book by Lawrence Wright entitled, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.

Threats of lawsuits appear to have stopped publication of the book in the U.K. and Canada. It seems the release of Atlantic’s sponsored content was timed to correspond with the expose’s release in the U.S.

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Even Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg reacted to the sponsored piece by writing an over-the-top blog post about the recent expose on Scientology.

He titled the post, "A Wonderful New Book About Scientology, by a Wonderful Writer."

The idea of sponsored content isn't rare online, or even in newspapers when you consider the practice of making ads look like written pieces. (Recently, the Associated Press started posting clearly-marked sponsored content on their Twitter feed.)

Jay Lauf, The Atlantic’s publisher, told Digiday.com that they began posting sponsored content, or native ads, about three years ago. Native ads account for about half of the site's growing ad revenue.

Lauf told the site:

A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more. It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.

That seems like a flawed jump in reasoning to me. But I am not the head of a 155-year-old publication, so let us proceed.

The piece also received a wave of heavily-favourable comments shortly after it was published, raising questions about how comments were moderated and about how unfavourable comments were handled.

Atlantic spokesperson Natalie Raabe told the Washington Post that such native ads are found on their website quite often, but have never caused the uproar seen in this case.

Perhaps it was the controversial focus of the sponsored content that brought the critics out. Is it really appropriate to be blurring the lines of advertorial content for an organization so often the focus of actual journalistic scrutiny?

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There is little doubt that Scientology was drawn to that form of advertisement in the hopes that some readers would view the product as actual coverage by the Atlantic. In the lead-up to the expose on the organization, they could likely use all the support they can get.