“In this case, we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand … To be clear, our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser [the Church of Scientology] as an organization. Where I believe we erred was in the execution of the campaign … One important note for everyone: casting blame on any group or any individual is both unfair and simply not what we do at The Atlantic. And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together,” – Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic.
“That ad was a mistake in both concept and execution. I am saying all of this as a loyal and long-time Atlantic employee but as an observer of rather than participant in this recent drama. (That is, I had nothing to do with any part of this: the origin of the ad, the decision to pull it, or the drafting of this statement,)” – Jim Fallows.
I’ll have more to say later on the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model of “sponsored content” which blew up the room at Buzzfeed last night. But here’s something worth clarifying.
There’s no reason to believe that the editors and editorial writers at these sites are involved in the sponsored content of their respective joints. The editorial writers are not the sponsored content writers. Jim Fallows would no more have written the ad copy for the Church of Scientology than make a guest appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The Buzzfeed review of PlayStation 4 – though jumbled next to sponsored content for PlayStation 4 – was written in obvious good faith, as I noted last night. In other words, I am not accusing journalists at those institutions of anything unethical.
I am accusing those institutions of pushing as far up to the line between advertorial and editorial as can be even remotely ethically justified. I am accusing them of now hiring writers for two different purposes: writing journalism and writing ad copy. Before things got this desperate/opportunistic, the idea of a magazine hiring writers to craft their clients’ ads rather than, you know, do journalism, would have been unimaginable. A magazine was not an ad agency. But the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model is to be both a journalism site and an ad agency. You can see the reason for the excitement. We can now write purely for corporate clients and that will pay for us to do the rest. And so a CEO at Chevron gets a by-line at the magazine that once gave us Twain and Thoreau.
More to the point, when an ad page is designed not even to be seen much on the site’s homepage – where the color shading helps maintain the distinction between ads and edit – and is deliberately purposed to be viral, to pop up alone on your screen with “Buzzfeed” at the top of the page and a layout identical to Buzzfeed’s, the deliberate attempt to deceive readers is impossible to miss.
Am I thinking readers are too dumb to notice the by-line? Aren’t they more sophisticated than that? No and yes, they’re sophisticated, but not the way an industry insider is. I’m merely noting that – to the eternal mortification of writers and reporters – readers don’t really care or notice whose by-line it is in a magazine or newspaper or website. They can easily overlook them. The name Buzzfeed is exponentially larger on any single advertorial than the actual sponsor’s. If you get a single post on Ten Coolest Things On The Planet, and it’s as good or as funny as anything else on Buzzfeed, and is on Buzzfeed, and looks just like everything else on Buzzfeed, be careful to note the small print where it tells you you are reading propaganda from Halls. That’s their fig leaf.
They need a bigger, clearer one. Because they’re pulling a Britney right now.