UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism dean Edward Wasserman is dismayed over the consensus takeaway from the recent Atlantic advertising snafu, in which a glowing article written and paid for by the Church of Scientology was presented almost exactly as if it were regular journalism:
In the aftermath of this embarrassment, some of the criticism the Atlantic received was surprising, and focused on how poorly the magazine played the “native” game: Nobody, it was said, could mistake the Scientology missive for an article the Atlantic might actually have run. The magazine erred, Charlie Warzel of AdWeek wrote, by “licensing uninteresting and bizarre content that falls well outside the walls of the magazine’s brand.”
Economist magazine managing director Paul Rossi advised publishers to start thinking like ad agencies and get better at concealment: “The real issue is how do you make content that’s compelling to a reader that doesn’t feel like an ad. That’s the real challenge.”
So the problem was that the deception was inept and easily detected. If that’s it, the solution, it seems, would be to integrate paid persuasion seamlessly into editorial offerings, so that reader resistance is allayed and the ads go down smoothly.
But that’s not it. The more basic problem, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman wrote, is an “existential” one. In that regard, “native advertising” succeeds precisely because it’s so skillfully wrought that it’s imperceptible as advertising, and joins the flow of information and commentary that readers accept as part of the chronicle of topical realities that they trust the news media to provide.