HBO premiered the Alex Gibney Scientology documentary “Going Clear” last night. It airs many more times on various HBO channels through April and on their on-demand service – I encourage you to check it out. It is based on the 2013 book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, which detailed many abuses that have gone on in the church. Both the book and the documentary feature damning testimony by many ex-members of the church, some of whom had very high ranking positions.
The church itself, needless to say, is not amused. In typical fashion it has waged a PR war against the film, starting with an expensive full-page ad in the New York Times on January 16. It has continued its assault with a series of articles printed in their own “Freedom Magazine”. (The material there largely consists of a series of ad hominem attacks on the former Scientologists interviewed in the film).
But how is the church expecting any of this additional material to be seen by the general public? Freedom Magazine is not well known outside church circles, and the New York Times ad has not repeated. Who is going to bother to go to this obscure website to read these attacks?
The answer is in online advertising. How the church is using online ads may have some interesting lessons for skeptics.
Contextual online ads
There are many types of online advertising. Some types include the ubiquitous banners and sidebars, annoying pop-ups and pop-overs and television-style ads inserted before video content plays. But the most effective ads are those that are contextually matched to the reader’s interests, using the surrounding web-page content and other clues. Indeed, one of the reasons Google got so rich is the extraordinary effectiveness of ads next to its own search results, which are matched to the search terms used.
Advertisers select keywords or phrases when placing their ads, and based on a bidding system their ads are shown when end users make those searches. When keywords are chosen properly, these ads can be amazingly effective. Not only do they garner a better response than less targeted ads, but they can be cheaper to advertisers as a result of their effectiveness.
Subsequently other sites such as Twitter and Facebook have debuted advertising systems that also use contextual targeting, but customized to their platforms. For instance, Twitter allows you to target ads (or as they call them, “promoted tweets”) to the followers of particular Twitter accounts or people with similar interests.
Most of these online ad systems also allow other dimensions of refinement, for instance targeting ads at users in a particular geographic area.
How Scientology is using online ads
In order to get their attacks on Going Clear out to a wider audience, Scientology has been using Google search ads and promoted Tweets to push out links to their takedowns. (They may also be using other online ads as well that I haven’t seen, such as on Facebook).
As the debut of the program approached, naturally the general public searched for the title “Going Clear” with increasing frequency. Here’s a graph of that search term on Google over the last three months:
The church took advantage of that obvious sign of interest by the public, and purchased ads tied to that search. Whenever you search for the film by name on Google, you will typically see this ad above the search results right now:
This is a common technique to get time-sensitive content out to the public. The church could have done some SEO work to get their site to rank for the term “Going Clear” but that can be error-prone and time-consuming. Ad purchases can be instantaneous, and allow an organization to quickly respond to a timely news item like this.
Over on Twitter, they’ve churned out a long series of tweets on their @FreedomEthics account also linking to various critical content. But only about 600 people follow that account. To get those tweets seen, they’ve used promoted Tweets to push them out to others based on interest. I’ve seen them in my own Twitter feed, there is an example screen shot I took at right.
I do not follow any Scientology accounts, so why did this tweet appear on my phone? Look at the bottom line – the yellow arrow indicates it was promoted to me by the owner of the @FreedomEthics account – the Church of Scientology. Probably it was targeted to me because I follow a few accounts known to be anti-Scientology such as @tonyortega94 and @ (among others).
This Twitter campaign has been vehement and hard to miss, at least if you have any interest at all in Scientology. In fact, Esquire did an entire online piece on their Twitter war with many examples of the hundreds of tweets that have been posted.
Skeptics can use targeted ads as well
Now Scientology is an organization with billions of dollars in the bank, and they are probably spending quite a bit of money on this online ad campaign. But one of the other interesting aspects of both Google and Twitter’s advertising programs is they can easily be used by small businesses with very modest investments. Thus even armchair skeptics could also use similar techniques to push out announcements or blog posts to very targeted audiences.
And non-profit organizations can apply for a grant from Google, funding their campaigns. Some non-profits tell me they are running thousands of dollars of ads each month using this program!
I’ve written about pro-science Google ads before on the blog. In a 2012 post about misinformation in Google I pointed out that at that time a search for the phrase “vaccination leads to autism” would actually result in this ad display:
As you can see, all three of these ads are placed by pro-science non-profits, in order to get the attention of searchers who might otherwise be drawn toward ordinary search results which push pseudoscience or conspiracy theories about vaccines. (That was three years ago, so different ads display on this search today).
Skeptics should take advantage of this same technique – especially for temporary situations similar to Scientology’s current campaign. For instance, if a touring psychic will soon be visiting your town, your local skeptic group could purchase ads designed to target people who might be looking for tickets. Google allows ads to be targeted geographically, so you could arrange for your ads to only appear for people in your town. Twitter offers the same geographic customization, as do other online ad services.
And you don’t need to have Scientology’s bank account. Both Twitter and Google allow targeted ad campaigns to be launched with a very small amounts of money – literally ten dollars could place a few ads, and your spending can be easily capped to avoid surprises. The services also provide analytics on exactly how many times your ads were seen, whether they generate click-throughs and so on.
There are a host of ways this could be used by skeptic groups, such as:
- Promote an blog post or an upcoming lecture about homeopathy to local residents who are searching for homeopathic remedies on Google.
- Planning an upcoming skeptic event such as a Skepticamp? Promote a tweet about it to local followers of famous national skeptics like Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Phil Plait.
- Bringing in a national speaker to speak to your skeptic group? Promote a tweet about it to followers of that person, limited to the local area.
- Has there been local news relevant to skeptics, such as an alt-med scandal or psychic indictment? Run a general ad for your skeptic group next to local searches relating to the story.
- Written a skeptic blog post that relates to a particular location? Promote it to people who live there who might be interested, but might not follow your blog.
Any of these could help get the word out about your skeptic efforts, for just a few dollars (or even for free). And ironically, you’ll owe your success to the example set by Scientology.
Update: Added a note and a link about Google’s AdWord grant program.