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Tess Vigeland: There are things that most people would never EVER do — no matter how much money someone was offering. At least we’d like to think so. But sometimes, money changes everything. That is also the name of a series we’re been running in partnership with CBC Radio in Canada.
Today, reporter Sean Cole has the story of a man who crossed a very bright moral line to make a buck.
Sean Cole: The guy’s name is Noel Biderman and you might have heard of him. He’s the president of a Toronto company called Avid Life Media, which runs a bunch of niche dating sites. There’s CougarLife.com for older women and younger men, HotorNot.com aimed at 20-somethings. But there’s one site in particular, for which Noel has gotten a lot of attention.
Lauren Lyster: Joining me now is Noel Biderman.
Sean Hannity: Noel Biderman.
Joy Behar: Noel Biderman.
Mike Galanos: He’s the CEO…
Jeff Probst: And spokesperson…
Probst and Galanos: …for AshleyMadison.com.
AshleyMadison.com, a dating site for married people who want to cheat on their spouses.
Galanos: You know where I’m comin’ from — I don’t know how you live with yourself.
Behar: What made you so angry that you started this website?
Noel Biderman: No, it wasn’t about that.
Audience member at the “The Tyra Banks Show”: I feel like comin’ right up there and knockin’ you out, bud! That’s my emotions that are runnin’!
People are always bringing Noel on TV so they can yell at him. But nobody ever really sits down to talk with him. So this past spring, I spent a few days at the Ashley Madison offices.
Cole: Hello, sir. How are you?
Biderman: Nice to meet you, Sean.
Cole: Very good to meet you too.
Because the more I learned about Noel, the more I wanted to talk with him about one thing in particular: His marketing strategy. See, Noel buys traditional ads where he can. But of course, a lot of big media companies won’t take ads from Ashley Madison. His response? Fine.
Biderman: I can do whatever I need to do then to make sure that my investment returns, because I’m not doing anything illegal.
So what he does is offer organizations a ton of cash to promote Ashley Madison in outlandish elaborate ways. Against all reason, he really hopes they’ll say yes. And when they say no, he goes to plan B — decrying them in the press for being unreasonable. Last year, for example, the Toronto Transit Commission announced it was doubling subway fares. So Noel offered to subsidize everyone’s train rides if the TTC plastered 10 streetcars with the Ashley Madison slogan, “Life Is Short, Have an Affair.”
Biderman: At the last minute though, those wise city councilors who have the veto power vetoed the whole deal. And everyone in Toronto wanted to jump into that debate.
TV news commentator: Conservative groups are relieved, saying marriage has taken enough of a beating.
Family values commentator: The idea that we…
Website publicized. Again, Noel really wanted to wrap those streetcars with his ads. And love him or hate him — or really hate him — his reasoning makes sense. News coverage of his failures is one thing, it’s fleeting. But if he ever succeeded, the public outcry and Ashley Madison’s name would be heard ’round the world. For now though, he mostly has to bank on failure.
Here’s another example.
Caitlyn Coverly: Noel wanted to find one city that had serious budget issues and offer them money to rename something in their city.
So he told this publicist…
Coverly: Caitlyn Coverly.
…to email the city of Phoenix, Ariz., and offer them $10 million to change the name of their airport from Sky Harbor International to Ashley Madison International for a period of five years.
Coverly: And within 24 hours, my proposal was rejected. And then the media picked up on it after that.
Cole: And was it surprising to you that they rejected the proposal?
Coverly: Absolutely not. But at the same time, I did enough research to know that there was a slight chance. Because let’s face it, a lot of U.S. cities are dealing with serious budget cuts right now and maybe $10 million would be enough.
Cole: There’s a price for everything you think.
Coverly: I think so.
And you could say that the very anecdote Caitlyn just told disproves her belief. Or you could go one further and say that even the specter of money changes everything. After all, every time the media covers one of these failures, or brings Noel on TV to yell at him again or, yes, interviews him for a public radio personal finance show, more people hear about Ashley Madison and more people sign up. Speaking of which, Ashley Madison has six million members. Avid Life pulled down $30 million in revenue last year. So even though its most effective publicity, all the press coverage is free, it does have a little money to throw at even odder stunts like this one.
Announcer: And now the host of the Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant.
Howard Stern: That’s right.
Announcer: Howard Stern.
Stern: Thank you.
Ashley Madison put up $100,000 this year so that Howard and friends could rate the bikini-clad mistresses of Tiger Woods. The winner took home three-quarters of the money. Let’s skip to the end.
Stern: Here comes Noel Biderman with a check for $75,000. What do you wanna say Noel from AshleyMadison.com?
Biderman: How ironic that Ashley Madison can bring some comfort to a mistress left in the dust, but, you know, I’m happy to do it.
Cole: That to me seems really gross.
Biderman: Why is it gross?
Cole: Well, because it just seems to be making light out of something that caused pain. It’s buffoonish.
Biderman: But how is that anymore crass than his press conference where he thanked Accenture. That was the most transparent apology in the history of mankind.
Cole: Sure, but it wasn’t a bunch of women shaking their asses. Like that’s different.
Biderman: I actually think that’s more honest. You know, now they got a chance to saddle up to some money. I think it’s as honest as you can get. It’s called commerce.
Stern: There’s your flowers by the way. And there’s also golf clubs on the flowers.
Cole: Can I ask how much you make?
Biderman: I don’t even know, to be honest.
Cole: That sounds like a lot.
Biderman: I do really well.
Well enough that his wife doesn’t have to work. Yes, he’s married. With two kids. Introducing cheaters to each other online has afforded them a pretty comfortable life. And while I haven’t mentioned this until now, Noel does tend to defend his business with various theories and arguments about the future of matrimony and where we’re headed as a society. But in the end, he says it really is all about the money. There’s no way he’d be doing this otherwise.
In Toronto, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.