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The Not-So-G-Rated Side of Social Media

January 27, 2010

The World of Online Affairs

Online dating sites hold an interesting position within the online world.  They often seem to move against the ebb and flow of economic trends.  Writers from The Economist noted that such services were among the best online performers during the recent recession.  This was no less true a decade ago when online dating services remained one of the few healthy digital enterprises left standing amongst the rubble following the collapse of the dot-com bubble.  This observation did not go unnoticed by Darren Morgenstern who then sought to carve a highly controversial niche out of the surging industry.

Morgenstern’s brain child was a social networking site which was aimed at bringing like-minded individuals together.  In essence, not too dissimilar from other sites which were beginning to establish themselves, it was the Morgenstern’s target demographic which would later ignite a firestorm.  Amongst a myriad of services offering to help find love for those who were without, Morgenstern realized that what was missing was a place where individuals who already had love (or at least did at one point and decided it would be best if they legally bound themselves to one another for the remainder of eternity) could find more.

Morgenstern realized that just such a place would not have a hard time garnishing interest from male hopefulls, but he needed a way to attract the fairer sex to his site whom he assumed to be more discerning.  It was obvious that a site entitled “Cheaters Come Here” just wouldn’t cut. After searching through a database of baby names, the budding entrepreneur took the two most popular names for girls at the time and after sinking $10 000 into development, in January 2002, Ashley Madison was born.

The Nuts and Bolts Ashley Madison functions much in the same way that other online dating websites do.  To use the service, one must first register an account.  To sign up as a guest, basic questions are asked.  After you have selected your user name, password and indicated your location, height, weight, body type, ethincity, email address and stipulated “how far you are willing to go” the user is flung headfirst into an array of individuals looking to take part in an affair or to capitalize upon the financial generosity of those looking for someone who is a little younger and who knows how to be discreet.  As a guest, you are free to join and create a profile but not to contact other members.  One is, however, subjected to the introductory “full membership” packages available.  The site even goes as far as to provide you with a 100% guarantee that you will have an affair within 3 months or you get a money back.  And don’t worry, the site assures you of your anonymity.

The Community

Currently, Ashley Madison boasts a roster of 5 180 000 members.  The membership ratio of men to women is 6.5:3.5.  A typical male member is aged 35-60, married for 7+ years and feels a “physical intimacy void”.

The current company president, Noel Biderman, was kind enough to break down the characteristics of the site’s female base. In Biderman’s own words, female members typically fall into 3 categories.  1) the “desperate housewife“.  2) The “mistress” – single women who are looking for dinners out and trips abroad but who are not looking for a white-picket fence and kids *ahem, gold-diggers, ahem*.  3) and finaly newlyweds who are disappointed that marriage didn’t live up to their expectations, whom Biderman describes as his fastest growing demographic.  Typically married women are 30-50 and single women (looking for married men) are 18-30.  30% of all the women registered on Ashley Madison list themselves as single.

Ashley Madison operates in the Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.  Los Angeles is home to the largest concentratino of users followed by Toronto and then New York.  Typically site traffic witnesses spikes on Monday mornings and immediately following family holidays.


In 2007, Darren Morgenstern sold Ashley Madison to Noel Biderman’s Avid Life Media which owns several other websites and its based out of offices located at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto, Ontario.

Staying Power

Despite its critics and for better or worse, Ashley Madison is here to stay.   The sites business model works around users’ purchase of credits.  Every time a member wishes to contact another member, be it through an instant messaging or email, it costs the user a certain amount of credits.  100 credits may be purchased for $49, allowing the user to engage in 2 hours of instant messaging or to send 20 emails.  Under this basic principal, the site was able to record $30 million in sales during 2009 amounting to $8 million EBIT.  Avid Life is currently moving towards becoming a publically listed company with the hopes of  listing on the TSX and raising $60 million as an IPO.

Campaigning Tactics

Under the guidence of Morgenstern, the company chose to place small ads within the Toronto Star, instead preferring to grow by word of mouth.  This early startegy paid off in droves as by early summer 2001, membership totaled 60 000 and by the end of the summer, the user list had surged to 550 000.

Morgenstern’s more subtle approach was completely overhauled as the company changed hands.  Not one to shy around controversy, Biderman took Ashley Madison‘s campaign in a radically different direction by eating up advertisement spots on national networks and erecting billboards across targeted cities featuring daring slogans such as “monogamy is monotonous” and “for when divorce isn’t an option”.

The controversy that was generated only seemed to bolster the company’s position.  A giant advert placed in New York’s Times Square which featured a notice on the door handle of a hotel room generated such a firestorm that the owners of a building across the street threatened to burn it down if it wasn’t removed.  On the day it was taken down, membership grew by  150 000.

Biberman does not hide from the cameras either, appearing on The View, CNN, The Tyra Banks Show and Good Morning America.  After having its slogans spoofed by Ellen DeGeneres, the same day the company witnessed its membership expand by 8 000 would-be-adulterers.

Not all networks seem to be willing to give Ashley Madison any screen time.  Both NBC and CTV rejected advertisements which were to be aired during the 2009 Super Bowl.  The ad was aired later by ESPN, CNN, Fox News, Bravo and TLC.

PR Tactics

When it broke that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer had engaged in an extramarital affair, Biderman addressed to him an open letter posted in the New York Times which mockingly stated that he may not have been caught had he used Ashley Madison.

The company has also released pseudo-scientific infomercials entitled “Perspectives on Infidelity“.

Remember when celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey was accused of having a 10 year affair?  It turns out that his accuser and would-be-mistress was Sarah Symonds, Ashley Madison‘s UK spokeswoman apparently hoping to generate some buzz.


After all that description, what is really left to say?  Does Ashley Madison fill an online void? Sure.  Is it profitable?  Certainly.  But there has to be more.  Who is anyone to say whether or not infidelity is inherently wrong?  You can only ever make that decision for yourself and your partner.  But after researching this article, I some how feel a bit dirty.  Not in that “I’ve got that extra little spark in my eye” kind of dirty but that grimy, sludgy feeling as if you have just touched something which might give you a disease.  The website’s proponents argue that cheating is just natural human behaviour and that infidelity can trace its roots back to a time when we resided within caves, walked around naked and hit each other with sticks.  I’d like to think that we have moved beyond those days and hardly hold myself to the standards of my great x 400 grandfather.  But the corruption of morality is something that surrounds us each and every day and why should this be any different.  Biderman himself acknowledges the hipocrasy in one of his latest ads…

I need to take a shower.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aasana permalink
    January 28, 2010 11:50 pm

    Hi! That is an interesting piece! It’s funny because just last week I read in the Globe and Mail that Avid Life Media Ltd., the parent company of extramarital dating websites is pushing for a listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Let’s see how that turns out.

  2. nirusitha permalink
    February 4, 2010 3:33 am

    Since I am pro I also completely understand your position on this site. While it is morally wrong, you must admit that their approach to intergrating PR and getting themselves known is a smart, strategic approach! What online dating website has this much publicity, whether it is right or wrong, and can brand themselves to be internets #1 online dating site for married couples! Although, i don’t commend them for their idea of dating married couples, I also can’t knock them for it, especially because there making money and I’m not! Nevertheless, there are tons of articles, posts, video’s on the controversial topic that is, check out my blog, I’ve posted some of it on it!

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