Ashley Madison and the power of traditional marketing

Published on the 31/08/2015 | Written by Gerry McGovern

Ashley Madison had a ‘lack of women’ problem long before it had a stolen data problem. It solved its ‘woman’ problem by using traditional marketing techniques…

Even after the personal data of its many millions of subscribers had been published on the Web, the Ashley Madison website pretends as if nothing has happened. On its homepage it boasts that it has “over 39,915,000 anonymous members!” It crows about its discreteness, trustworthiness, and security.

Ashley Madison feels that it can ignore the elephant in the room, the fact that its members are no longer anonymous, and that its vaunted security was completely breached. It hopes its members will ignore this reality because these members have always bought the dreams and illusions it’s been selling.

Because Ashley Madison has an even bigger problem. It was estimated that about 9 out of 10 of its members were men. What’s more, Gizmodo reporter Annalee Newitz found out that the vast majority of these female members weren’t real. After extensive analysis, it was discovered that of the estimated 5 million female members, only 12,000 of them belonged to actual, real women. “Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared,” Newitz wrote.

So, how did Ashley Madison approach this ‘woman’ problem? If you look at its homepage you see a picture of a very attractive woman inviting you to become a member. Promote the very thing you are not. Turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength through marketing. Sell the illusion because that’s what people want to buy.

This old and constantly repeated central idea of advertising and marketing has most definitely worked. It works for Coca Cola, who package their obesity drink in handsome fit bodies. It worked for Marlboro as they sold their cancer sticks with the rugged, outdoor Marlboro man. Did you ever see an ad for a car where the driver was stuck in heavy traffic? No, they’re always whizzing around the empty streets of Rome or Paris, or crossing a shimmering desert.

The core product of traditional advertising is illusion. And where you have sad, old men desperate to have an affair, it still works. And there are many other areas where people are desperate to buy the dream rather than the product. Traditional advertising will work there too. But due to the Web and the availability of information, there are an increasing number of areas where traditional advertising simply doesn’t work anymore.

Sarah Parmenter gave a presentation at An Event Apart in Washington DC where she showed two types of photographs that were being used to promote a hair salon. One type was taken by a professional photographer while the other was more amateur. The professional photograph got 1 like and 0 clicks. The amateur photo got 79 likes and 521 clicks.

We all know about banner blindness. (You are as likely to get hit by lightning as click on a banner ad.) Increasingly, we are also finding that traditional hero shot imagery actually reduces people’s trust in a website. Deceptive advertising has been used for so long that more and more people are not simply becoming immune to it—they are becoming allergic to it.


Gerry McGovern is founder and CEO of Customer Carewords, which has developed tools and methods to help large organisations identify and optimise their customers’ top online tasks. He has written five books on how the web has facilitated the rise of customer power.

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