Material world

Material world

Ashley Madison: should we blame the business or the customers?

The accused.

Hackers have released the personal information of the 37m users of the Ashley Madison and Established Men websites. It is now well known that the Ashley Madison – “Life is short. Have an affair.” – site is for people looking for extra marital sex. Established Men, meanwhile, targets women looking to date rich men. Both sites are owned by Avid Life Media.

Some still hope that the data released may not be reliable, but as one security specialist has noted: “I’m sure there are millions of Ashley Madison users who wish it weren’t so, but there is every indication this dump is the real deal.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this story is how morality has become central to the debate – the morality of people who use the website and the hackers. But what about the morality of the marketers? We’ve stopped questioning the use of sex to sell things, but what about when marketing is used to sell illicit sex?

Avid Life Media appears to have been making money both out of people’s desire to engage in dishonest behaviour – and out of the guilt and regret that they felt later. It is the latter that the hackers seem particularly worked up about. ALM had a policy that apparently allowed users to delete their profiles, but they charged for it, at a cost of US$19. This produced US$2m of income for the company in 2014.

The hackers have shown that the delete option did not work as advertised and are exposing what they call the “fraud, deceit and stupidity of ALM and their members”.

So is there anything wrong in marketing such an illicit service and reaping the financial rewards, not only from this but also the guilt that some clients may feel later? Well if you go on Twitter you will find that there is very little sympathy for the people whose accounts were revealed by the hackers. Although many seem to find the whole thing humorous.

Simply providing a service?

But what is clear is that there is a market for such behaviour and ALM is not the only company benefiting from it. OpenMinded.com is a website for so-called “ethical cheating”. Ethical apparently because you tell your partner that you are going to be unfaithful or include them in your new relationships.

Arguably by offering an anonymous service, Ashley Madison uses an age-old marketing technique of tapping into people’s subconscious desires. Since motivational researchers, Edward Bernays and Ernst Dichter first uncovered the importance of the subconscious – including sexual desire – in the purchasing of products in the 1930s, sex has been important to marketing.

Bernays and Dichter showed how marketplace decisions are driven by emotions and subconscious whims and fears. Doubtless Ashley Madison’s reminder that life is short played on some people’s existentialist angst. But also it could be said that, as with so many products and services, we didn’t know we wanted them until they were on offer. As the famous adage goes: sex sells.

It’s certainly not the first morally dubious service or product on offer. In the 1920s Bernays spearheaded a campaign that encouraged women (for whom there had previously been a taboo on smoking) to try cigarettes. In a similar way it could be argued that Ashley Madison through its very existence and its so-called anonymous service made illicit affairs possible, and even without the help of hackers may have led to heartbreak for many. Of course, where Ashley Madison differs to other products or services being marketed by sex is that it is actually all about sex.

Guilt is the other marketing technique that Ashley Madison seem to have used to their profit. Like sex, it has long been used to make us purchase things we don’t necessarily want or need. From cream cakes (“naughty but nice”) to rescue dogs (“how much do you love me?”), guilt has been a useful tool at the hands of astute marketers. Rarely, though, has it been used in such an exploitative way to benefit from someone’s mistakes as ALM seemed to be doing.

A commercial enterprise that gets money from deception and guilt seems intrinsically wrong. This is perhaps more of a problem for many than the nature of the service they are selling. But we shouldn’t lay too much blame at marketing’s door. Yet again apparently intelligent individuals have been duped not only by what they have been sold but also by their own naivety. I also wonder how many of ALM’s members have told their children to be careful about what websites they sign up to or reveal on social media, as nothing is private on the web.

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