Serious Questions: Dating Sites and False Advertising

Q. Boyer

The popup ad promised something fairly amazing in any context: “thousands” of girls in my area, all presumably hot to trot, or at the very least, available to cyber-woo. From my perspective, there was only one small problem with the claim; it was quite obviously false, and enormously, egregiously so.

How could I be so certain the ad in question was promising something the advertised site could not deliver? The “area” I happened to be sitting in at the time was a border town called Why, Ariz. ... and the total population of Why is maybe 140 people (as of the 2000 census, it was a cozy 116).

It occurs to me that since dating site and cam service advertising have become such an important ad-revenue source for adult sites, we really ought to make sure we examine these markets closely, and inspect them carefully for signs of all-too-familiar mistakes.

Even if one were to be charitable about the meaning of the word “area,” you would have to draw a pretty damn big circle around Why to create a zone that contained thousands of girls, period, much less thousands of girls who were also members of any given website. If you’ve never been to Why, Ariz., trust me: Facebook would be hard-pressed to offer evidence of even hundreds of girls from this “area” having profiles even on that nigh-ubiquitous site.

I’ve written about the legal risks of making such false claims before, and industry attorneys have confirmed my suspicions in private consultations and during legal panels at various industry trade events. While the risk might seem minimal (to my knowledge, no dating site has been sued over this precise manner of claim to-date, although they’ve certainly faced other advertising-related liabilities), the obviousness of its falsehood still raises a serious question: What’s the point of such a claim if nobody can be expected to believe it in the first place?

This brings me to the other sort of risk that flows from false advertising – the danger presented by poisoning your brand within the consumer market. Even if you never offend the sensibilities of a dating site member who subsequently gets litigious on you, making obviously false advertising claims still tarnishes your brand, eroding consumer trust and denying you brand-loyalty, the single most salient factor when it comes to creating recurring revenue, sustained membership and lasting growth.

From unsupportable ad claims and clearly fake profiles to overly-aggressive billing models, many of these marketing mistakes are familiar to anyone who has worked in the online adult space for any amount of time. While the online porn industry clearly didn’t invent the art of bilking consumers, we certainly perfected it, creating enough ill will to last generations in the process.

Say what you will about Twitter, Facebook and their social networking platform ilk, these sites generally deliver what they promise. No doubt, Facebook glosses over its inherent flaws and issues, from problems with protecting user privacy to its rather opaque disclosures with respect to who can access what data about Facebook users, but generally speaking, what you see is what you get, and it’s unlikely that FB is bulk-purchasing headshots for the purpose of generating fake profiles and driving up their numbers.

While dating sites, and adult dating sites in particular, aren’t quite the same thing as a social networking platform like Facebook, they do offer some of the same core features, of which internal, on-deck communication is an important example. As such, some of the same principles apply; presumably, adult site members want to have confidence that the person they are communicating with is who they claim to be, at least in a general sense. Sure, we all accept that a certain number of people we encounter online are frauds and fakers, but we also expect those kinds of ‘false encounters’ to be the exception, rather than a built-in aspect of the site’s marketing strategy.

I’d like to think that most dating sites operate on the level and that most of the fraud that takes place within them can be blamed squarely on unscrupulous users acting independently of the site’s ownership and management, but if a site starts its relationship with me by telling a bald-faced lie like “Thousands of girls from your area” in reference to an area where there’s not even dozens of girls to be found, I have to assume that particular site is not an example of one of the dating site sector’s above-board operations. Frankly, I have to assume that other lies will follow, including some that might directly affect my pocketbook in a most unpleasant way.

The sad part is that I’m fairly certain some of this misleading isn’t entirely intentional, but partly a matter of a basically good idea — like geo-targeted ads — being applied in an unwise way. What it boils down to is a need to fully question and test our own assumptions as marketers, and to really drill down into the “unintended consequences” column of our own pros-and-cons checklists when we’re considering a new approach to advertising, or any new ad-related technology.

It occurs to me that since dating site and cam service advertising have become such an important ad-revenue source for adult sites, we really ought to make sure we examine these markets closely, and inspect them carefully for signs of all-too-familiar mistakes. We need to make sure that to the extent that these sectors remain healthy sources of revenue, we don’t find a way to ostracize dating and cam site consumers the same way we’ve made willful pirates and unabashed freeloaders out of paying porn customers.

There’s no such thing as an Immortal Golden Goose, after all, and if there’s one thing we’ve proven over the history of the online adult sector, it’s that we have fantastic aim when it comes to shooting ourselves in the foot.

A 16-year veteran of the online adult entertainment industry and long-time XBIZ contributor, Q Boyer provides public relations, publicity, consulting and copywriting services to clients that range from adult website operators to mainstream brick and mortar businesses.