From eHarmony to bCatfish: the ABCs Behind Internet Dating


Love is one of the world’s most powerful forces. Human beings are well aware that it is one of the purest, most organic feelings that any creature can every hope to feel. If you happen to be over twenty-five years of age and still lacking in the love department, there may be something wrong with you. But fear not, for who better to go to then eHarmony in order to found a loving relationship on the most inorganic of realms, a realm which lacks any actual substantial human contact: the Internet.

Starting in 2004, eHarmony (“the nation’s leading dating website”) released a slew of advertising campaigns promoting their site with the statistic of how “one in every relationship now begins online.” Initially the commercials featured happy couples, usually heterosexual in the age-range of twenty-four to early forties, who thanked their healthy happiness on the “honesty” and deep-reaching profile which eHarmony has constructed for those whose status on Facebook is still shamefully “single.” And at the end of it all is the founder of eHarmony himself, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, psychologist and theologian who turned entrepreneur when he launched the site fourteen years ago. Yet with closer analysis, one cannot help but realize that there’s a bit of a nefarious, albeit ridiculous, side to them all.

For one thing, all the couples portrayed are not of the supermodel variety usually found in ads. They are normal, average-looking folk that vary in size and shape. This would most likely appeal to what cultural analysts Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson would refer to as the “alienated spectators.” In this highly ad-saturated world in which people are constantly bombarded with ads every which way they turn, they have become wary towards advertisers and corporations who seek to sell them something they may not need. These alienated spectators are a jaded breed that are not so easy to trick; they are not swayed by beautiful features or perfect bodies.   Yet in the case of the eHarmony ads, the people are imperfect up to the point of a farce.   In some instances one may even call them “dowdy” in appearance, something signified by their preppy collars,  their lack of obvious make-up, and  ill-fitted clothes. In one commercial deemed “wedding reception,” a white couple performs an awkward dance while the man describes “[his] and Lauren’s romance to be a volcano of love.” Not only is the generic attitude towards this, again, pastel-covered and buttoned-downed couple emphasized by an equally generic name such as “Lauren,” but the clip of them dancing in an attempt to be frivolous combined with that line of cheese brings about a tinge of sad, loser-ness. And sure enough the whole thing screams “average,” average people being the main demographic to seek a love online which has spurned them in reality. Average, middle-class looking people are the only ones having trouble finding true love in the real world, so why not start an Internet profile and find it for a price?

But perhaps it is not as drastic as all that. It is progressive that average people  are being targeted just like all those beautiful people out there. It means that they have a chance, that they are a viable market that does not suffer from what Larry Gross calls “symbolic annihilation.” When there is a specific demographic (say, for example, homosexuals) that is not targeted via ads, it somehow does not exist economically and therefore exist at all. But one must keep in mind the context of relationships in today’s world as opposed to the world fifty, even twenty years ago. People put off things such as marriage and children long enough due to the increase in drive for more education and a stable career. Being single at thirty is not as drastic now as it was back when marriage was the only option.   However, if one happens to be single and in their mid-twenties, they may look at these ads as the harbinger of loser-ish days to come, the idea that their single status is a problem to be solved via an Internet profile already growing in their mind. Much like advertisers pointing out the foul stench of body odor in order to sell soap, eHarmony is exacerbating a problem that does not exist in order to sell a product. In much of the same way Grant McCracken states people are both enabled and burdened by the new products displayed before them with the advent of advertising in what is known as the “speedier diffusion of fashion knowledge,” people today are burdened with the new norms they must keep up with via ads like eHarmony, whether such problems be real or not. It is why people must be informed, and why the use of “culture-jamming” must be implemented.

Much like Sarah Haskin’s “Target Women” series which parodies ads whose main demographic is women, the proposed eHarmony ads would follow the protocol of what is known as “culture-jamming.” Coined by cultural critic Vince Carducci, “culture jamming” is an “organized, social activist effort that aims to counter the bombardment of consumption-oriented messages in mass media”(Handelman and Kozinets). In other words, culture jamming is a anti-consumer culture tactic that draws attention to social discourses via ad form. For example, the Truth campaign used extreme culture jamming tactics by releasing their own anti-tobacco ads showcasing victims suffering from the effects of tobacco.   Yet irony tends to bring out ludicrousness at its best, allowing people to laugh at something they had not initially seen as a problem. That’s why bCatfish should premiere regularly on daytime television.

In these ads, heterosexual couples in bifocals and pants that are pulled up much further than they will be dancing with to the Friends theme, “I’ll Be There For You.” bCatfish ads will play out like any other eHarmony advertisement, the couples looking lovingly at each other and smiling like it’s Christmas Day. However, when interviewed their scripts may be slightly different. One man might be heard saying, “Well, when we first started chatting it up I said I was twenty-five, but when we met she quickly got over the fact that may have been about ten years too little” while his now partner laughs in good humor. Next, a woman will be looking deeply into the eyes of her partner, saying, “Humor was the only similarity we had on our profiles, and when we met in person even that turned out not to be true. But at least we have each other!” Lastly, but not least, a Dr. Clark Warren lookalike will appear on screen, reassuringly stating how one out of every four relationships are started through bCatfish and how about ninety-five percent of its users don’t even look like their profile pictures. “After all,” he’ll say, “We’ll exploit your insecurities with the image for honesty. You’re just going to have to pay first.”

The eHarmony campaigns should be smeared by culture-jam due to the fact that they are perpetuating the idea that not only should humans further their disassociation with physical contact, but that this lack of physical contact is more substantial and safe. It gives people the idea that, just because you pay a company a hefty sum of money, they will guarantee you something that has no guarantee in general. And, of course, there is the security aspects. The site has no set way of verifying people are who they truly, no matter how thorough and “honest” their profiles may be. It pushes a person to a state of insecurity that they are willing to form viral relationships with strangers who may not be exactly who their “thorough” profile portrays, all for the sack of a profit. It keeps an obsolete concept of dependency as validation in a progressive world that otherwise values individuality, all the while claiming “honesty.”

Emotions in general, not just love in particular, are pure. In their purity, they are extreme delicate and prone to manipulation. Advertisers are well aware of this, as are supposed professionals such as Dr. Clark Warren. What they say must be taken with a grain of salt, and one must think before buying into the “one is the loneliest number” ideas which they push. People have come a long way for independence, and it would be a shame for one silly ad campaign to cause an ideological regression.


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