Advertisement or Endorsement?

The Atlantic magazine was forced to remove a Scientology advertorial when it received an intense backlash from readers on its site and other social media outlets.

An advertorial is an advertisement in editorial form and, thus, is sponsored content. While this specific form of promotion is not new, the subject of the advertisement is extremely contentious and provocative to the mainstream public. Scientology has had its fair share of controversies in the past, ranging from creator L. Ron Hubbard’s suspicious financial intentions to the organization’s known association with high profile celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The ad in question was praising the organization’s accomplishments in 2012.

Although the Atlantic issued an apology, the issue is whether the apology or removal of the ad were even warranted. The Atlantic is a respected magazine dating back to the 19th century and has even been commended for its successful transition to online content. In the age of digital journalism, publications and news organizations must raise their profits to meet viewers’ growing demand for fast and free content. When nearly all online content is offered free of charge, the Atlantic must make money somehow. Sponsored content proves more effective in catching the reader’s eye than the ignored banner ad next to an article.  The magazine had every right to run the ad as it is not endorsing Scientology. However, readers most likely mistook the ad for editorial content due to its misleading appearance. It failed to ensure its readers understood the article as sponsored content and that it was not a direct reflection of the publication. For these reasons, the Atlantic received much criticism.

How can media outlets and publications meet the demand of its audience and still earn profits? Are there standards to what forms of promotion and marketing are suitable in digital journalism? With the use of an advertorial, how does a news organization guarantee its audience understands the difference between an advertisement and an endorsement?

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2 Comments on “Advertisement or Endorsement?”

  1. bfutch says:

    News outlets, like Atlantic Magazine, need to have clearly defined policies regarding advertorials. If an organization chooses to accept and publish them as profitable advertisement, then it should do so with any advertorial it receives, regardless of content. Advertorials are a legitimate form of income for news outlests, and Atlantic Magazine had every right to run this particular one. They should have, however, been prepared to withstand the criticism in response. Atlantic Magazine should also have clearly labeled the content as paid advertisement to prevent reader confusion.

  2. Anne Maxwell Douglass says:

    I find it baffling that readers would react so strongly to a religious advertisement. Freedom of religion and speech are paradigms of our nation, and denying the right to either is simply unconstitutional. The Atlantic Magazine has every right to run advertorials, especially religious ones, under the First Amendment. I understand that some readers were probably upset that the advertorial could have been confused to be an editorial by an untrained eye, yet I doubt that people would have reacted so strongly if the ad had highlighted Christianity’s accomplishments in 2012. Every religion should be free to peacefully promote itself, and the Atlantic does not owe anyone an apology for acting as an agent of free speech and religion.


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