Yesterday, The Atlantic - the American magazine best known recently for publishing goadingly counterintuitive think-pieces like Stephen Marche's Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? and Nicholas Carr's Is Google Making Us Stupid? - published a piece of long-form advertorial bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology.
The "Sponsored Content" David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year laid out the "renaissance" the dead-eyed Church of Scientology leader had "spearheaded" over the last year. The Atlantic has since removed the non-story, or rather, it has "temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads." The whole thing caused a minor stir on Twitter last night; one of those tempest-in-a-teapot-type episodes that Twitter is so good at brewing up.
Part of the problem was how seamlessly the Scientology puff-piece was integrated into The Atlantic's larger site architecture, distinguished only by a yellow bolded SPONSOR CONTENT notice.b. It invites us, as members of the Toronto media, to consider how such advertorial content is being managed in our own backyard, specifically with regard to major Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation buys in major dailies, like the Globe And Mail and Toronto Star.
Advertorial is a tricky thing. You could persuasively argue that all advertising is inherently disingenuous. But advertorial is especially sinister. It'd be one thing to, for example, run an ad for a given motion picture littered with emphatic pull quotes in a paper (or on a website) next to that publication's more level-headed review of the same film. But it's a whole other thing to dress up that advertisement as a mock-review for the film, then slapping a SPONSOR CONTENT byline on it.
The thing that good ol' fashioned, newspaper back page, or tower-and-banner web advertising has going for it is that it's obviously advertising. It's what we might call "an honest lie." It's candid about the fact that it's selling you something. Advertorial is a dishonest lie: an opinion, or even a patent falsehood, gussied up in the sheep's clothing of truth. It passes, at least in terms of format and style, as editorial, i.e. as sober, reflective, researched opinion and not as self-interested commercial enterprise.
It's telling that such pieces of writing are often used to advocate for a general cause or idea, more than a specific product. Shilling for a cause, like a made-up church or a casino-as-revenue-fixit, as opposed to a new theatrical release or a kind of car, requires a certain kind of subtlety that advertorial affords. The whole point of it is that it will be mistaken - maybe not by the ultra media savvy, but by someone - as something closer to reporting. This is why it's packaged, in papers and online, with news and editorial content in the first place. In The Atlantic's case, that cause is the Church of Scientology. In Toronto's, the idea is the prospect of a downtown OLG-owned casino, which has filled pages (both print and online) in the daily news with blushing puffery that presents the prospect of a gambling megaplex as the ribbon-wrapped solution to any and all of Toronto's financial woes.
Like The Atlantic piece, these OLG-underwritten non-editorials are superficially distinguished from the rest of the papers' content. In the Globe's case, they're identified as "A SPECIAL INFORMATION FEATURE BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE OLG," leading wording which is barely above board, taking for granted that a piece called Entertainment, Gaming Complex Could Net Host Millions Annually is "special" or "information" in any meaningful way. (The Globe also interlinks their ads on the "Modern OLG" using their standardized, "MORE RELATED TO THIS STORY" prompts, which, again, suggest that these things are "stories" and not "opinion-shaping agitprop.") On the Star's site, the pieces are presented, with a bit more honesty, as part of a "Special Advertiser Section."
Some might say that that's enough, and that the general tenor of these pieces would mark it as advertorial, to say nothing of the flanking advertising and plastering of OLG logos. But that The Atlantic has taken it upon themselves to remove their article, suggests that not even they buy this. And the very idea that people can just tell that it's not real-deal editorial makes certain assumptions about media literacy that fly in the face of the very model of advertorial.
To say, "I read on The Globe's site today that a decade from now Toronto could rank among the top 10 convention destinations in North America, if we had a casino," is not altogether untrue, while at the same time wildly misrepresenting the aims of objectivity (or at least non-objective knowledgeability) that defines something of the essence of journalism, totally perverting what we should be meaning when we say "I read on The Globe's site today..." It is advertising piggybacking on journalism. In theory, advertorial is designed to facilitate this sort of confusion, blurring boundaries between advertising and editorial (duh, it's in the name). By design, especially online, this confusion is intensified. There, advertorial presents itself as of-a-piece with the overarching web architecture, embedding itself amongst legitimate opinion and reporting. After all, we're used to seeing two-page spreads for car dealerships or 2001 Audio Video in print, where the experience of reading online has been defined more by ads flanking, or outright overlaying, the content proper.
The good thing about most online ads, and especially the ones that pop up in front of you when you're trying to read something, is that they're annoying. They should be. To be advertised to should feel annoying, a slightly grating necessary evil of living in developed, western, capitalist, etc., society. Advertorial is creepy because it's non-intrusive, because it takes the base, effective operations of "Hey you, buy this" marketing and sophisticates it in an attempt lie, dishonestly.