Extramarital Affair Ad Gets Axed

ESPN says it asked affiliates to pull an ad for a cheaters' matchmaking service.

Aug. 4, 2008 — -- ESPN is yanking a commercial for an infidelity matchmaking service.

Amy Phillips, a spokeswoman for ESPN -- which is owned by Disney, the parent company of ABC News -- said that the sports channel has asked its local affiliates to stop running an ad for AshleyMadison.com, a Web site that connects would-be cheaters with potential mates.

Phillips would not say why the channel decided to pull the ad.

Noel Biderman, the president of AshleyMadison.com, who learned of ESPN's decision from an ABCNews.com reporter, said he felt that "a double standard" had been applied to his company with respect to advertising.

He said ESPN is "inundated" with advertisements for alcohol, a product "responsible for health issues and ultimately death."

"Somehow I'm immoral and everything else is OK," he said.

AshleyMadison.com boasts a membership of more than 2.2 million. For $49, members can create profiles and send e-mails and instant messages to each other. A slogan on the company's homepage reads "Life is Short. Have an Affair."

The 35-second commercial shows an unhappy-looking man lying in bed alongside a snoring woman. As he gets up and leaves the bedroom, a narrator's voice declares, "Most of us can recover from a one-night stand with the wrong woman, but not when it's every night for the rest of our lives. Isn't it time for AshleyMadison.com?"

Biderman said that his company, which was based in Toronto, was spending more than $1 million this summer to run the ad on several television channels, including CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Fox News Channel and Spike.

But some of the networks on Friday distanced themselves from the ad.

A spokesman for Spike said he wasn't sure if the network had ever run an ad for AshleyMadison.com but added that "if it did run, it would never run again." Representatives for both the Fox network and Fox News also said that the channels would never air the ad.

Robert Marich, the business editor at the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable, said that just because a national network has disavowed an ad, it doesn't mean its local affiliates or cable providers that carry their programs have done the same.

Marich said that both national television companies and local television stations each sell on-air advertising time. Local stations and cable providers are often run by owners independent of the national networks, he said. While national television companies have control over the commercials they run, he said, they don't impose restrictions on or review the ads that their local stations air.

"In general, [local] TV stations set their own policies for what's an acceptable ad or not because they're responsible for what they put on their air," he said.

Biderman said that the commercial represented the company's third television campaign. Previous Ashley Madison commercials -- which ran between 2003 and 2007 -- had usually aired after 11 p.m. at night and on programs with "desensitized" audiences such as the "Jerry Springer Show" and "Cheaters," a reality show about infidelity. It has also been advertised on Sirius satellite radio.

The new television campaign, he said, was designed to reach more people and would be aired during the day in some markets.

Unlike its last commercial, which showed a man and woman rolling around in bed, the new ad is "a little edgy" and "a lot more humorous," Biderman said.

"We really wanted something that could sit in a sports property, that could sit in a news property," he said.

The ad has run on ESPN's "Sports Center" program and Biderman said there were also plans for it to run during CNN's "Larry King Live" and "Anderson Cooper 360."

CNN did not return calls for comment Friday.

While the ad is sure to raise the ire of conservative and family values groups, media watchers disagree about the impact that the commercial may have on consumers and their attitudes toward infidelity.

Bob Garfield, an advertising critic for the magazine Advertising Age, said that a profusion of such ads could "normalize what was previously considered deviant behavior."

"A 30-second spot for human trafficking is probably just around the corner," he said.

But Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that when it comes to perceptions of infidelity, the Ashley Madison ad is "a drop in the bucket."

"I think that idea is being normalized by our neighbors, what we hear other people doing, its depiction in literature, movies, everything else," he said. "This little television ad saying that people are in infidelity relationships is a tiny little piece."

John Chapin, an associate professor of communications at Penn State University, said that the commercial is a reflection of infidelity in society today -- albeit a distorted one.

"It's us but a little bit more exciting, a little bit more promiscuous, a little bit more interesting than what we really are," he said. "The commercial wouldn't exist if the culture wasn't there, but it's just punched up a notch."

Biderman said he did not believe the company's ads would prompt someone to cheat on his or her significant other.

"I maintain that in a 30-second TV spot, I'm not convincing anyone to engage in infidelity," he said. "I don't have that power of persuasion."