Jul 05

The bottom line: Adultery thrives in the market place

Adultery is proving a profitable, if ethically challenged, business. Photo: Karl HilzingerIf you’re troubled by an unpleasant squeaking sound that you can’t put your finger on, it’s probably the 34 million members of adultery website Ashley Madison getting it discreetly on with other people’s husbands and wives. That’s the combined population of Greece and Australia, by the way.

How many buckets of tears this represents can only guessed at. But let’s talk about what matters on the free – or at least, free for the evening – market. Money. Adultery, as a branding tool, has made Ashley Madison, the world’s leading dating site for cheaters, a billion dollar company. Last year it pulled in $US117 million, three times what it made in 2010. Sneaking around is on a roll, fiscally at least.

Monash University sociologist  Dr Andy Ruddock believes it is a predictable outcome. “The idea that you can take a phenomenon as basic as adultery and turn it into a media business whose primary function is to demonstrate the commercial power of social media, isn’t really that surprising,” he says.

Ashley Madison founder and Canadian Noel Biderman now wants an even bigger slice of perfidious pie by launching his company on the stock market, any stock market, with hopes of raising $200 million via an IPO.

Having failed in the United States, where investors don’t mind putting their money into guns and tobacco, but get queasy over questions of sex, Biderman announced in April his focus would shift to seducing UK and Europe where he believes people are more relaxed about having a bit on the side.

It’s hard to know whether Biderman is wholly sincere in these expansion plans, or if he’s simply seeking publicity at which he is shamelessly adept.

Last year he offered the beleaguered NRL Sharks (caught up in the supplements saga) a $10 million sponsorship deal on the basis that they had cheating in common. Biderman wanted the Ashley Madison logo, complete with discarded wedding ring and slogan – “Life is short. Have an affair” – plastered over stadiums as the Sharks showed off their devastating tackles. However, the Sharks turned Biderman down and there was speculation the offer was an attention-seeking stunt.

In interviews, Biderman protested the offer was good, noting that Australia – where Biderman claims half a million members – was his fifth biggest market in an empire of 46 countries, and he hoped to further build the brand here. (Melburnians, those friendly try-hards, are Australia’s number one enthusiasts with 100,000 listed on Ashley Madison, many of them wearing funny masks in their profile photographs, just in case their husbands or wives come looking.)

However, Biderman has form for creating deals that fall through but generate plenty of free publicity. Around the time of the Sharks farce, he was negotiating with UK budget airline Ryanair to have the Ashley Madison brand painted on a plane for for 120,000 euros ($173,000). Plenty headlines, no deal.

In the US, which represents half of Ashley Madison’s market, Biderman routinely feigns outrage when the Fox network refuses to run one of his ads during the Superbowl. Adweek苏州美甲美睫培训学校 has mocked Biderman for “pretending” to have enough cash to actually pay for the ad.

Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella, the online media and marketing magazine. He also wonders if Biderman could afford to pay for a Superbowl ad. “If they suddenly offered him a spot, he might struggle to pay for it. You’re talking hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars.”

The fact is, Biderman’s strategy has gained him an astonishing free run on US TV talk shows – he’s appeared or been discussed on Larry King, Ellen, The Today Show, Bloomberg, CNN and so on.

In Australia, the company has run a series of late-night TV ads that are inevitably pulled off following complaints to the Ad Standards Board – and by then they’ve been airing for several months anyway.

One of them begins with a man cheesily singing “I’m looking for someone other than my wife.” Another joins in, playing air guitar with an iPad that happens to be scrolling various masked women. Soon after the screen is a wall of men singing.

Responding to several hundred complaints, the board found that Ashley Madison vilified women, especially married women, in the ad. “The emphasis on the term ‘wife’ gave a strong message that wives are inadequate or somehow lacking,” the board concluded.

Another ad featured a zombie husband and a wife on the verge of beating him with a baseball bat, but is distracted by a TV ad beseeching her to have an affair – which eventually saves her marriage. The Ad Standards Board pulled this  “for being too violent.”

Biderman milked the bans by cheerfully claiming the ads had gained him an additional 200,000 members.

Dr Brent Coker teaches internet marketing and social media at the University of Melbourne. He says the online sex industry has always been profitable, but Ashley Madison is perceived to have “crossed the line making money out of something a lot of people think is the ultimate sin.”

However, he says the move by Biderman to float his company on the London Stock Exchange might see a lot of people swallowing their outrage if there’s a lot of cash to be made. “People might care about adultery as an issue, but care about money more.”

He wonders if the shares will have extra value because of the relative high profile of the brand. If that’s the case, all those prime time talk show appearances, watched by millions of people, will actually pay off.

“A lot of their share value would be about brand. Apple and Google aren’t massive companies … but their share values are higher than the huge conglomerates. A measure of the strength of brand is share price … so you might see people investing, but maybe not telling anyone about it.”

But maybe they will.

Sociologists tend to see the advent and success of companies like Ashley Madison as almost inevitable.

Dr Amy Shields Dobson is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. In social media cultures more broadly, she says, our relationships of all kinds have become commodities. “That is, our relationships, no matter with whom, are a source of value for social media companies. In this context it is unsurprising that affairs and dishonest sexual relations are also commoditised.”

But is it a good thing?

Dr Karen Jones, a philosopher with the University of Melbourne, says by openly promoting adultery for women, (sites such as Ashley Madison) threaten the “gender-asymmetric enforcement of norms”, in which men have often been expected to cheat, and women not. “To the extent that they do that: good luck to them. It’s also no doubt why they are the target of moral grandstanding about the sanctity of marriage. But infidelity harms to the extent that it betrays trust and here’s the asymmetry that matters: trust is easy to build, but almost impossible to rebuild.

“Once destroyed it almost always stays destroyed. The infidelity business sells betrayal and so its product is toxic.”

Psychologist and social commentator Lyn Bender says her clients get “really upset” about cheating.  “Capitalism doesn’t think about ethics or people’s feelings.”

Ms Bender says that when people have affairs, it’s usually with someone they’ve known for a while, at a time when they’re not feeling good about themselves or their marriage. “So there’s a vulnerability at play,” she says. Ashley Madison, she says, “are exploiting human vulnerability, which is massively unethical.”

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