Paying for Affairs is Just Business as Usual

(Published in the February 2011 issue of The Cavalier)

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Superbowl XLV. Most companies would die to have their advertisements shown during what is arguably the most-watched event on American television. Of course FOX (the station airing the Superbowl this year) screens hundreds of proposals from various companies and organizations wanting to take advantage of this marketing free-for-all. For most, they just don’t make the cut. In past years, ads from PETA and gay rights groups have been rejected for “controversial content.”

Enter Avid Life Inc., the company responsible for infidelity dating website AshleyMadison.com. The Toronto-based business, which had their IPO jilted by worried Bay Street investors, had its proposal to air an Ashley Madison commercial during the Superbowl shot down by FOX. The Toronto Transportation Commission also rejected a bid by the company to plaster Ashley Madison ads on the side of streetcars.

So where does that leave the company? Clearly a dating website touting infidelity goes against the moral compass of most people. But so do a whole host of other things like drugs, prostitution, gambling, money laundering, corruption, theft, and so on. Is Avid Life Inc. treading on rocky ground for making money off people’s spousal problems? Are they morally corrupt for exploiting a market that preys on the unfaithful? If one is willing to pay for an affair, should there be a market for it?

Yes, yes and yes.

Before you cry foul and throw your copy of the Cavalier at me, let me acknowledge that in general, affairs are a big no-no – especially if they cause the break-up of families. Divorce is possibly the ugliest thing one can expect a child to go through and it has ramifications that can often affect a person beyond their teenage years. It can change family dynamics completely, turn a child’s life upside down, and most importantly, destroy people’s lives.

However, there are far worse things than extramarital affairs. Why can’t other questionable industries such as the tobacco industry or the gambling industry be held to the same moral standards thrown at Ashley Madison? At the heart of it, the gambling industry preys on people down on their luck who have a couple thousand dollars they may or may not be able to afford to spend, hoping they’ll lose all their money at the blackjack table before heading back to the bar to drink more booze.

This also extends to the billion-dollar adult entertainment industry – should they also be faulted for catering to a market of sexual enthusiasts? Such “sinful ventures” earn what they do simply because they cater to a niche market that is willing to pay for such services. In essence, they’re no different from Apple and its hordes of affectionately-called Macheads who patronize Steve Jobs and everything he touches. Both serve a very specific group of people. Both make a lot of money. Both have successfully converted regular consumers into advocates of their brand. Most importantly, they cater to their consumers’ needs. Sinful ventures simply satiate needs and wants of a different kind – but those are still needs and wants nonetheless.

The underlying issue with Ashley Madison is that they are surviving off the misfortune of others. But can’t the same be said for pharmaceutical companies who make money off the sick and needy? If people are so concerned with the ethical behaviour of Noel Biderman and his rag-tag bunch of executives, they should look at the folks behind PETA who have been known to use smear campaigning to great effect, or Nike, a company that has been targeted with allegations of employing sweatshop labour.

People are already making money off the misfortune of others (questionable ethics in hand), so why should Avid Life be singled out? Also, in Avid Life’s defence, it isn’t the first company to invest in indecency (and profit from it) – FOX, for example, airs shows with far more questionable content than what Ashley Madison is espousing. Ever hear of Jerry Springer? Hard as it is, we can’t deny the ugly side of human nature. It exists. We can turn a blind eye towards it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists.

Just because such a service exists doesn’t mean unhappy men will immediately take advantage of the website. Phrased differently, the existence of alcohol doesn’t cause depressed men and women to rush out to the nearest bar to drown their sorrows. The ultimate decision lies with the consumer and whether he is willing to stray away from what is socially acceptable in order to satisfy his needs and wants. As for Ashley Madison? Please let them be. If we have the time to get all riled up about an infidelity dating website instead of worrying about things like voter turnout and the recession, then clearly our own priorities are in the wrong place.