Scientology and “sponsor content” at The Atlantic, which must be hard up for ad revenue

From David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year:

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 driving force behind this unparalleled era of growth is David Miscavige, ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion. Mr. Miscavige is unrelenting in his work for millions of parishioners and the cities served by Scientology Churches. He has led a renaissance for the religion itself, while driving worldwide programs to serve communities through Church-sponsored social and humanitarian initiatives.


Further on, the piece begins to use Scientology lingo, like “Ideal Orgs” and “Ideal Churches”.

The lengthy article with its 13 glowingly beautiful photos is what the magazine calls “Sponsor Content”, which you can discover in pretty small box above what looks like a typical Atlantic article. If you hover over “What’s This?”, there’s an explanation:

Sponsor Content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content. Email to learn more.

At the end of the piece is an image with: “Sponsor content is presented by The Church of Scientology”.

The move by The Atlantic has already spawned a parody Twitter account (much deserved, imo):

Interestingly, in the last few half hour or so, The Atlantic has published a post by Jeffrey Goldberg about Lawrence Wright’s new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, presumably a critical investigation of Scientology.

What’s going on with that? Is Goldberg trying to take a shot at Scientology to stem the tide of criticism of the magazine?

Apparently there are a few other Sponsor Content articles on The Atlantic site, but this is problematic on many levels, including the fact that even the “ads” and the links to other “stories” around the “sponsor content” direct to the Scientology homepage.

The Atlantic is going to have a tough time explaining the choice to run this massive ad in a way that looks so similar to the magazine’s widely respected content. In my ethical universe as a columnist and blogger, The Atlantic has crossed a serious line here — several lines in fact.


The more I think about this the more irritated and disappointed I become. So let me add just two points:

1. If The Atlantic will allow a propagandistic ad like this from Scientology, what would they not allow? Sponsor content from BP about their fine work in the gulf? From the NRA about armed guards in schools? From Hamas about its peace initiatives? Publications obviously need to be careful denying ads to groups based upon their beliefs, but we’re not talking here about about a 300×250 pixel rectangle. This is an entire page that has, like it or not, the imprimatur of the publication itself.

2. Articles from The Onion periodically get believed — even in one case by a prominent Chinese news source. This big ad for Scientology will no doubt be linked to from around the world. Some percentage of the people who land on the page will have no idea what The Atlantic is. Some won’t see or understand “sponsor content”. Some will speak little or no English. Some will be psychologically vulnerable. Even if The Atlantic did not intend to do so, it just gave a stamp of legitimacy to the message and the hyperlinks.

UPDATE, 1/15, 8 a.m.:

Sometime overnight The Atlantic removed the “sponsor content”. I took screen caps of the page beforehand, so I might add one or two later to this post or a fresh one.

If you go to that original link, you’ll be redirected to this:

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

The Atlantic could be wide open to lawsuits from Scientology over this, but the removal seems the right thing to do to me.


Since you can’t see the page for yourself, here’s a screencap of the top of it taken around 11 p.m. last night. Note that the ad slots above and to the right redirect to the Scientology homepage:

The "Sponsor Content" that was later removed from The Atlantic website.

The “Sponsor Content” that was later removed from The Atlantic website.


Here’s the statement from The Atlantic:

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.

Media Relations Contact:
Natalie Raabe
The Atlantic
(202) 266-7533