OPA Intelligence Reports

Posted in News on 01/28/2013 By Mark Glaser & Courtney Cowgill

The Scientology ad: A cautionary tale

The Atlantic said in a statement that it “screwed up” when it ran a “Sponsored Story” touting a great year for Scientology. But what happened at The Atlantic has implications that reach much further than one publication screwing up. The rest of the apology statement hinted at what those implications are: “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.” The move created quite a stir, garnering all kinds of comments about, pardon the pun, the separation of church and state in journalism. But, the deeper issue is so much more than just the blurring line between business and editorial. In a piece parsing the “Perils of Native Advertising” in Businessweek, Jared Keller wrote: “Advertisers are understandably annoyed that we’ve learned to read past their banners and block out the right rail; to keep ad dollars flowing, publishers are increasingly willing to experiment.”

ThinkProgress’ Sharmin Kent put it this way: “Although the majority of digital marketing firms, online publications and large brands carefully craft creative and effective campaigns, digital marketing is still a relatively young industry — so it’s pretty much inevitable that some campaigns will hit a wrong note or bomb altogether.” But this type of advertising has been around for ages. It has a new name in “native advertising” but as PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil pointed out, it’s nothing new. “It’s almost a step back to the past, when sponsors like Texaco had singing servicemen to kick off Milton Berle and other hit TV shows, and the sponsor message was also part of the entertainment or information,” he wrote. But does The Atlantic snafu mean Sponsored Stories aren’t going to work on today’s audience? Not necessarily. It’s all about the execution. (Among other things, The Atlantic was taken to task for allegedly moderating comments on the story.) It’s just a matter of carefully setting policies and boundaries for this new form of advertising. As Benkoil wrote, “If companies today will pay for analogous, or even stronger access, in digital, figure out a way to give it to them—while protecting the viability of the organization over time.”