Ashley Madison, the online dating site for married people famous for its shock advertising, is toning down the message, instead creating content aimed at empowering women with the message it’s fine to have an affair.
Recently, B&T interviewed GroupM’s chief technology and transformation officer, Ryan Menezes. When asked what was the best brand he’d never worked on, Ryan said: “The brands you don’t want to work on are as important as the ones you do. I remember around six years ago I was asked to partake in a pitch for Ashley Madison. I chose to decline since this didn’t align with my beliefs and principles.”
In response, Ashley Madison reached out and Isabella Mise (main photo) offered to share her perspective on working for a controversial brand.
Mise joined the company two years after the infamous data leak and PR disaster as the brand’s communications director.
Mise is in her thirties, unmarried and has unwittingly become the public face of the company; arguably a far cry from the old face of Ashley Madison which use to be its married and middle-aged CEO Noel Biderman. Ironically, Biderman left Ashley Madison due to email leaks that suggested he was having an affair alongside his customers.
The Canadian-based site is infamous for its controversial tagline “life is short have an affair” and being playful, unapologetic and controversial in its marketing approach.
In 2010, one of its commercials was banned in Australia by regulators that pictured a couple lying in bed together accompanied by the words, “This couple is married, but not with each other”. The advertising watchdog labelled it at the time as “demeaning and vilifying of women”.
Seemingly unbothered, the ad soon reappeared as a giant billboard outside of Sydney Airport.
In 2015, Ashley Madison produced an ad that featured men singing “I want someone other than my wife” − an undeniable catchy but controversial tune.
During this time, Ashley Madison was showing no sign of switching its marketing levers, then the famous – and global – data leak happened in 2015. The company got hacked and the details of some 32 million of its 40 million customers were shared online.
There were mass lawsuits and painful real-life consequences for its large stable of amorous customers.
The website had always promised its users discretion in their sexcapades and now their dirty fantasies were literally available to read online.
Remember that cringe-worthy Fitzy and Wippa radio segment where a woman realised her husband was on the dating website? Well, a more private equivalent of that was happening to millions of users.
Mise is the first to admit that although she was not there for the data leak, it marked a change in direction for the brand and the business. Mise telling B&T over the phone from Toronto: “When the dust settled, it was obviously a huge turning point for our business. It was a time to really step back, revaluate, read that baseline.”
Yet despite the brand taking a public beating with many people suggesting the dating website was over, Mise disagreed with that sentiment. “I think at the time, you know, we heard loud and clear people still wanted a married dating platform,” she said.
Naturally, the main response to the data leak was to tighten cybersecurity (the brand now has a chief privacy officer), but more interestingly it marked a shift in the way Ashley Madison connected with its customers.
The brand moved away from controversial campaigns and started working with academics and researchers to better understand its customers and why people seek out extra-marital affairs.
“I don’t think those older campaigns really told the full story of who was using the site and benefiting from it. We’ve moved beyond that style of PR and shifted to a storytelling approach and more heavily from a female perspective.
“Our goal today, which I think is really meaningful, is to help reveal the true nature of infidelity and we do that by leveraging data, calling upon academic experts, and I think most importantly using our members to tell their stories,” Mise revealed.
A prime example of this change is the 2019 study dubbed The Good Wife. The study garnered responses from more than 2000 female Ashley Madison members and looked at why women have affairs in the first place.
Click here to read the full report.
Mise added: “Women are actually cheating because either they are not having enough sex, or you know they aren’t having enough orgasms in their marital sex, or the enjoyment is not there. So, they are looking for a way to outsource that with the intention to stay in their marriage – straying to stay.”
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Arguably the brand’s findings made way for campaigns like its 2019’s ‘Shh’ campaign created by creative agency Mad Laundry which featured married women speaking to the camera about what they loved most about having affairs.
It is a noteworthy shift for the dating website to start examining itself from the inside-out, instead of seeking outside attention.
Mise continued: “I think we’ve done a really great job of leveraging some really rich data points and putting Ashley Madison in the background and making our members really just share what’s going on.”
The focus on members allows for the brand to understand how its customers work. For instance, in Australia, the brand found that regional campaigns connect with Aussies and that Australians were found to be COVID safe conscious.
However, Mise pointed out that Australians don’t cheat for different reasons than anyone else in the world. It seems cheating is universal!
The shift to the customer has meant Ashley Madison is constantly examining and looking at its customers’ habits. The dating site recently released a report called Love Beyond Lockdown that Ashley Madison’s parent company, Ruby Life Inc, produces.
The report aimed to look at how Ashley Madison had fared during lockdown and the results found the website attracted more than five million new members, both men and women, meaning an average of more than 15,200 new members were joining the site each day.
The study also found that, globally, for every male member there was now 0.7 female members.
It’s undeniable that Ashley Madison will always be controversial; after all, it is a dating site for married people, but it is interesting that the company that once seemed to use its marketing to poke fun at married men trapped in sexless marriages has now switched to female empowerment. Maybe it is just a sign of the times or perhaps even cheating has now become feminist?
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