The Atlantic Fiasco Doesn’t Mean Sponsored Content Is Bad, It Was Bad Sponsored Content.

It was only a matter of time. After watching Sponsored Content (and please don’t call it ‘native advertising‘) go from objectivity-crushing crazy talk to the savior of the news industry, this morning the Atlantic gave us our first full-scale sponsored content backlash.


The piece was instantly derided as propaganda thanks to gems such as:

“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.”

The backlash was swift and led to a prompt takedown along with an apology:

“We screwed up,” The Atlantic said in a statement. “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.”

Many outlets began questioning the entire notion of sponsored content, and that dirty word “advertorial” began to be thrown around left and right. Anyone who thinks this is a step back for sponsored content is missing the bigger picture. It’s far more a reflection of just where advertising teams fall in The Atlantic totem pole. It’s obvious that this article was not written alongside any Atlantic creative and was just thrown into the queue and not vetted to reflect The Atlantic values and beliefs, and in turn, appeal to The Atlantic audience. A few weeks ago I wrote about the way the new media property of the Atlantic, Quartz News, approaches this type of innovative advertising:

Quartz has loudly proclaimed their dedication to the idea, yet is not quite there. I’ve seen the same Chevron and NASA story for months now. More importantly, it may look like their other articles, but it certainly doesn’t feel like them. Their product and editorial output are on the forefront of social news, yet how many times do you think the Chevron piece has been shared?

Guess what? Those pieces are still up there and still terrible. Each piece of sponsored content should every editorial quality standard imposed for original content. I don’t say this from a point of journalistic integrity, I say this because it’s the only way it will be worth the money the advertiser is paying for it. Buzzfeed has gotten it, Slate and even Business Insider appears to have gotten it a bit.. This whole kerfuffle has nothing to do with the potential value of sponsored content, but everything to do with how much effort The Atlantic places in creating great pieces of relevant content that happen to be paid for.

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