In the world of journalism, “sponsored” content is often treated like a dirty word — an untouchable that gets cordoned off, lest it tarnish the purity of true editorial content.
But the recent controversy around The Atlantic’s decision to run a bizarre and confusing advertorial from the Church of Scientology shows what happens when editorial thinking doesn’t play a role in sponsored content. This was neither a good ad, nor was it a good piece of content. And it runs the risk of giving a bad name to all sponsored content, which can actually be a useful way for publications to get revenue and brands or organizations to connect with their audiences. (For the record, I have a journalism background and work in sponsored content).
In a world where sponsored content is becoming so prevalent, what sparked the outcry around this particular advertorial?
The art and science of sponsored content
Let’s break this down. This isn’t the first time The Atlantic has run sponsored content. As other critics have noted, they had a series on innovation by Boeing and an IBM piece about the power of data. There’s a “Sponsor Content” call-out at the top of the page, and if you hover over it, The Atlantic explicitly states that it 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.”
This is a sound policy. You don’t want the editorial team directing the ads, and you don’t want advertisers influencing editorial decisions. But that being said, editorial thinking and content strategy should absolutely come into play — especially if you’re a highly-regarded journalistic publication that’s running advertorial content. In this case, the editorial reputation of The Atlantic took a hit anyway, despite this policy and their swift apology. Why is that?
Well, there are two main issues that caused readers to lash out at The Atlantic:
1.) Don’t try and trick people into thinking they’re not reading an ad. There were very few cues suggesting that this piece about the Church of Scientology was not an actual article, other than the tiny yellow “Sponsor Content” box at the top of the page (see the above image). But perhaps most controversial was the comment moderation for this piece — only comments supportive of Scientology were allowed to appear on the site. These tactics are unnecessary because, really, sponsored content should ideally be good content on its own that also happens to be sponsored.
2.) Just because content is sponsored, doesn’t mean it can be totally random. You can’t treat sponsored content the same way you would a traditional ad. It’s content, so it requires some finesse. It promises the reader information, so it should mesh with the brand image of the publication (for example, Foreign Policy had a special advertising section about Timor-Leste … you’re not going to see that running in Better Homes & Garden). But the actual copy of the Scientology advertorial wasn’t good content — it was pro-Scientology propaganda (note that the Boeing series was about innovation, not airplanes). It would’ve better served Scientology’s purposes to think about the context, and develop content accordingly.
Don’t hate me because I’m sponsored
All that being said, there is such a thing as good sponsored content — and we shouldn’t let this one incident convince us that there’s no place for it. The moral of this story is that when it comes to sponsored content, a.) don’t trick people and b.) make sure your piece fits in with the brand image of the publication in which it’s running. You’re only doing your brand or organization a service that way — otherwise, it’s wasted money and effort.
Finally, let’s keep in mind that sponsored isn’t always bad. Sponsorship is basically the new word for patronage — and it’s why Shea Stadium is now Citi Field and the American Tour de France team is called the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a creative at heart, and I don’t think advertising should invade all aspects of life. I strongly believe in a free press that’s unattached from corporate and political pressures. But that being said, sponsorship can support projects that would otherwise never happen — and it presents a very real way for struggling online publications to earn some revenue.
One good example of sponsored content, in my mind, is Huffington Posts’s Global Motherhood channel, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. It’s real content, written by experts in the field, on an important topic that likely wouldn’t get this level of coverage otherwise. It’s health-related, which fits with Johnson & Johnson’s brand, but they aren’t literally selling baby shampoo and bandages. It puts the content in sponsored content first.
Finally, while some of the greatest works of art from the renaissance were “sponsored” by patrons who wanted to assert their power and status, these patrons didn’t climb ladders and paint stick figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, someone with expertise, actually created the final product. Sure, we’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. But there’s a lesson in this for brands seeking to create sponsored content — if you aren’t an editorial and marketing expert (or you don’t have any of those in-house), find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you.
Why? Because sponsored content is, in fact, content. And savvy readers will rip it apart if it’s terrible or insults their intelligence. Just ask The Atlantic.