After Scientology Debacle, The Atlantic Tightens Native Ad Guidelines

Sponsored content will become more prominent on the site

A little over two weeks after The Atlantic got egg on its face over a sponsored Web post by the Church of Scientology, the media brand has issued new guidelines for so-called native advertising. They're live on the brand's site now.

The issue—according to the outraged digerati but also by the Atlantic's own admission—was that the Atlantic violated the spirit of native advertising by giving a platform to a controversial institution that didn’t jibe with its intellectual tradition. Then it made things worse by censoring some of the negative reaction that filled up the comments stream. The incident generated a ton of screaming in social media, while also yielding an instant classic spoof by The Onion.

“We failed,” said Scott Havens, president of the Atlantic. “We published content that we didn’t work with our advertiser on. It was largely a press release. The comment stream exploded, and to control it, the staffer was holding back on publishing the negative ones.”

Going forward, native ads will be subject to three main changes. First, native ads will go through a two-part review process by a team consisting of Havens himself as well as people from sales, marketing, PR, legal and product. The team will screen prospective advertisers and review their content before it runs to make sure it doesn’t run afoul of the Atlantic’s brand.

Second, the labeling will be more overt, with a more prominent “sponsored content” label and clearly visible disclaimer (which until now, viewers had to click to read).

Finally, the Atlantic will have the sole power to moderate comments and will only moderate comments for spam, obscenity, hate speech and the like. 

The native ad (or sponsor content, as the Atlantic calls it) guidelines are part of a 1,000-word advertising policy that the brand created and that apply to all its ads. For now, the standards only apply to the Atlantic, but Havens said he expected that the company’s other brands would likely adopt them.

Not only has native become a key driver of the Atlantic’s business, but it’s fundamental to Quartz, Atlantic Media’s new business brand. As traditional publishers aggressively try to mine advertising gold in native content, the Atlantic brouhaha goes to show the growing pains that go along with bending ad models. It remains to be seen as to whether the additional hoops the company will now require brands and its staff to jump through to execute native ads will crimp their growth.

However, the Atlantic can take credit for being ahead of others in creating standards for native ads and making them publicly available, but with being a first mover comes scrutiny, and there will likely be those who will wish the Atlantic went further and, say, denounced the Church of Scientology or assigned someone from the editorial side to review native advertising.

Deciding where to set the bar when it comes to accepting advertising is a slippery slope (many publishers won’t take advertising by products that make unsubstantiated medical claims, yet accept money from other advertisers that are seen as objectionable, like tobacco and oil companies). Media companies like the Atlantic need advertising to continue producing their high-quality journalism, so it’s not surprising that Havens didn’t rule out working with Scientology in the future (both sides are still working out what to do with the aborted native ad.) “There’s no way we can account for all kinds of situations that come our way,” he said.

As far as editorial’s role, he takes the view that they shouldn’t be involved in advertising matters, although the Atlantic’s editorial leadership did participate in crafting the new ad guidelines. “We do believe there is some importance in keeping the advertising side of the business away from editorial,” Havens said.

And the more prominent labeling likely will go too far for some advertisers but not enough for traditionalists. That’s where native advertising runs a fine line. You don’t want to fool the reader, but on the other hand, if it’s not mimicking editorial, it’s missing the point. After all, the reason brands like native ad treatments is that they look and feel iike a site's typical content, and theoretically have less chance of being completely ignored. “It doesn’t serve our advertisers if there are questions of whether this is advertising or editorial,” Havens said, but added: “We don’t want to put a neon sign on this.”

This exercise surely won’t be the last of its kind, as other publishers navigate the uncertainty that comes with embracing an evolving and growing ad medium. Native advertising represented more than a third of its advertising revenue last year, and is growing. “We’re very bullish,” Havens said. “We believe it will be the most important part of our digital advertising.”