Just how does one market Ashley Madison, a "dating" website built in 2001 to arrange extramarital affairs? South Carolina voters received a taste of the site's enticing new strategy on Tuesday morning when two large billboards advertising Ashley Madison went up in Columbia, South Carolina. "NEXT TIME USE ... ASHLEYMADISON.COM TO FIND YOUR RUNNING MATE," the enormous advertisement reads, next to pictures of South Carolina Congressional candidate and serial philanderer Mark Sanford ... and a woman with a finger on her lips.
The timing is sound: just last night, Sanford's Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, highlighted allegations that Sanford had spent government money on trips to the Appalachian Trail, where he admitted to meeting his mistress — and current fiancé! (This is "a love story," folks.) But otherwise the billboard seems a bit puzzling. Why attach your service to a figure who repeatedly lied, ripped apart his own family, and devastated his own political career?
To understand the site's strategy, we spoke with the Ashley Madison's CEO, a forty-something named Noel Biderman. Speaking by phone, he explained that the site has staged similar marketing campaigns before, and in other countries. (Prior advertising campaigns targeted campaign sex-scandal staples like former President Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, London Mayor Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, and the King of Spain.)
"These campaigns are social commentary," Biderman said. And they're not, apparently, just jokes at the expense of famous politicians. Biderman, the author of a book about infidelity called Cheaters Prosper, believes that Sanford is something of a hero to people marginalized because they happened to cheat. He told Politico that Sanford's ongoing comeback story suggests that affairs are, well, something like normal: "Our society is coming to terms with the fact that people’s personal lifestyle choices should not impact their professional lives. Millions of people have affairs — powerful politicians are no exception."
That's why Biderman, no stranger to blowback from his hard stance on the regularity of affairs, ordered the billboard: he wants Sanford to win. "I want to be able to buy ads during the Super Bowl," Biderman, who has tried repeatedly to do so, told the Wire. As long as infidelity remains taboo, he can't. In this sense, Biderman is seeking not only money but cultural acceptance. He wants Sanford to win so that others will see how affairs can be healthy, even affirming, and pose no impediment to political ambition. "Clinton cheated! JFK cheated!" he said.
We asked Biderman about Sanford's own affair, which the Republican has characterized as an eartnest commitment, not a one-time fling. (In 2009, he told the Associated Press: "This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.") Sanford went on to propose to his mistress in August 2012. Not exactly the poster boy for Ashley Madison's clientele.
"I don't think it's uncommon to position infidelity as a love story," Biderman said, referring to the 1997 film Titanic and the 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County. But he otherwise admitted that most people on AshleyMadison.com hope to save, not sink, their marriages. "The vast majority of [Ashley Madison's] users are looking for something much more temporary to supplement their marriages," he said. (Indeed, his book is subtitled, "How Infidelity Will Save the Modern Marriage.")
In any case, the billboard appears early enough to get South Carolina voters talking about Sanford's indiscretions. It's to be seen whether they want to discuss cultural attitudes about infidelity, too. Voting for the special election begins on May 7.