Ashley Madison’s promise of “discreet encounters” subtly suggests the company’s purpose. For those who are incredulous (“That can’t be what I think it is”), the company’s registered tagline clarifies its mission: “Life is Short, Have an Affair.” If you still don’t believe it, allow me say it directly: Ashley Madison’s business is based on helping married people cheat on their spouses.
Started in 2001, the Toronto-based firm has about 30 million regular users in over 30 countries, which leads it to boast of being “the most famous name in infidelity and married dating,” as well as “the world's leading married dating service for discreet encounters.” Of course, people have been having affairs for millennia, but Ashley Madison employs the Internet to make infidelity even more effortless.
Apparently, here’s how it works (I have no firsthand experience, nor do I plan to). A person sets up a profile on Ashley Madison’s website and adds up to 12 photos. The user can then select a variety of search features to identify members in whom he/she might be interested, while waiting for inquiries from others. So, in many ways the service is similar to other popular internet dating sites. The difference, however, is Ashley Madison targets individuals who espouse infidelity and aim to engage in adultery, all without their companions’ comprehension.
How can such a scandalous business concept succeed? It boils down to basic economics: uninhibited supply (companies like Ashley Madison willing to offer the service) and unabashed demand (millions of people wanting to use the service). What’s more, some pundits even argue that investors should embrace a potential London IPO for Ashley Madison “because ‘sin’ stocks have traditionally performed very well; and because our definition of what is “sinful” and what isn’t varies so much over time, [therefore] there is little point in drawing a line in the sand here.”
So, what’s to stop the extramarital economy?—morally grounded individuals and organizations that understand both the importance of commitment and the tremendous toll that infidelity takes on our society. Ironically, even the creator of Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman, acknowledges the havoc that an affair enacts on a household: In an interview the “‘happily married’ father of two [said he] would be ‘devastated’ if his wife cheated on him.”
With revenues of around $115 million and the potential for a $200 million IPO, Ashley Madison regrettably has capitalized on a market opportunity and created stakeholder value. That success, however, comes at a great cost to individuals, families, and institutions by undermining values such as trust, loyalty, and integrity. In sum, Ashley Madison’s encouragement of adultery represents one of the clearest cases of “Single-Minded Marketing.”