BOB GARFIELD: Last week, readers of TheAtlantic.com found an article about the Church of Scientology, perhaps timed to coincide with the release of Lawrence Wright's investigative book on the Church. The article was quite a puff piece. And no wonder. It wasn’t editorial matter. It was advertising, bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology, a fact apparent only if you noticed the slightly different headline font and a tiny yellow box reading, “Sponsored Content.”
The Atlantic eventually took the advertorial down, admitting, quote, “We screwed up,” but a later internal memo from President M. Scott Havens copped merely to failing to iron out all the kinks in its policy governing so-called “native advertising.” That's the digital age euphemism for the old-fashioned advertorial. But according to Dorian Benkoil, founder of the digital media consultancy, Teeming Media, it's not just a terminology shift. The online world is also redrawing the line between advertising and editorial because the alternative, he says, may be extinction.
DORIAN BENKOIL: An advertiser or marketer is paying for access to your community. They’re paying for the placement and they're paying for the right to control or at least strongly influence the message. And in exchange for that, it does have to be disclosed that they have paid for that placement.
BOB GARFIELD: And that's the problem, right, because it seems like an endless game to see how close you can get to looking like editorial content and how little disclosure, you can get away with. Ultimately, unless I'm missing something, to trick the reader, at least momentarily, into thinking, in this case, he’s seeing Atlantic editorial content, instead of Scientology propaganda.
DORIAN BENKOIL: Well, the most deft advertising, the stuff that’s really clever and really well done, is the stuff where it's obvious that it is advertising and it's also engaging, amusing, entertaining, all of those things. There are other cases when there is a battle. And it’s not just in native advertising where these battles happen. The New York Times editorial page has for decades allowed placement of paid messages on the op-ed page, and the New York Times has had intense discussions about what they would and wouldn't allow on that page.
BOB GARFIELD: What the Times does is make sure that whoever the advertiser is uses an entirely different text font, an entirely different headline font and typically different column widths, plus a line around with the word “Advertising” or some such prominently displayed, so as to never be accused of subterfuge.
DORIAN BENKOIL: Even in display advertising, you know, a large rectangle on a homepage of a website, I've gotten in some intense and frankly sometimes annoying discussions with the advertising side about how big the word “Advertisement” had to be and whether we could reduce up from 9 point to 8 point and make it a less obvious black. I would say this could be one area in which The Atlantic probably did not succeed.
And I think The Atlantic, in their rush to try this new form of advertising and close the deal, maybe did not have the intense discussions there about the kind of things they need to do. And they need to understand that people will be coming to this page in ways that may not follow the path that they intend. So people may, in The Atlantic's mind, come to the home page, click on it and realize that what they’re readings is a paid placement, when, in fact, people can find it through Search, they can find it through social media links, land on the page and not realize that this is any different from any other page that's editorially controlled on The Atlantic's website.
BOB GARFIELD: You have a fair amount of sympathy for the people on the sales side who believe that the folks over in editorial just haven't a clue about what it takes to keep the lights on.
DORIAN BENKOIL: Oh, I can tell you from personal experience that as difficult as it is to double source a story, as difficult as it can be to get a lead, to confirm a fact, you're sweating bullets if you’re sittin’ there on Wednesday afternoon and you don't have enough money to make payroll on Friday.
So yeah, I have sympathy for the business side, and I think that there was an artificial situation in news media caused by certain historical factors where the editorial side could have a willful ignorance or even hostility toward the business side. And I can’t think of another for-profit industry where the people who make the stuff that makes money are able to be ignorant or even hostile toward the way that the money comes in. And now there is competition. You know, there’s a, a lot cheaper means of production and there's a lot more distribution, and they don't have these protected geographies and monopolies anymore.
And so, the people on the editorial side who make the stuff that makes the money, yes, at least at the executive and management levels, do need to understand something about the ways that the money can be made. And they need to have those sometimes uncomfortable discussions with the people on the sales side.
BOB GARFIELD: Dorian, I understand how it was a lot easier to be pure editorially when the profit margins were 30 percent [LAUGHS], but I can't help but think of the joke about prostitution, the punch line of which is: “We've established what you are. Now we’re just haggling about price.” Are you any less of a whore if you’re under financial pressure than you were when you were rolling in money?
DORIAN BENKOIL: I guess, you know, to take your very uncomfortable analogy further, if you're a for-profit institution, then you are for-profit, which means you're in business, which means, to some extent, you have to do things that would be considered impure or imperfect or perhaps, in your terminology, prostituting yourself. But there are lines that you can draw to say these are things that are my institution and my precepts, which I will not bend, and if it means that I go out of business, so be it.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Dorian, thank you so much.
DORIAN BENKOIL: [LAUGHS] You’re welcome, Bob. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Dorian Benkoil is founder of Teeming Media. He also writes and consults for PBS MediaShift. We invited The Atlantic to comment on the story on-air, but it declined to make someone available to us before our deadline.