Ashley Madison's 'Controversial' Billboard: Plenty of Press, Not Much Controversy

mitt romney billboardPhoto provided by Ashley Madison

Readers shouldn’t be fooled by the plentiful stories in local and national news about the removal of a “controversial” South Boston billboard for Ashley Madison, the dating site for people looking to have affairs. Reports from the Herald to the Huffington Post are framing this as a story about political controversy over Mitt Romney’s taxes, but it’s really nothing more than a case study in brilliant, if pesky, viral advertising. Ashley Madison’s publicity model has long been fueled by blatantly provocative ads that will garner press coverage, and it’s working like a charm in Boston, where there are plenty of articles but a distinct absence of any truly offended people.

The company began this week when their press rep, Elissa Buchter, emailed reporters to announce the existence of “a controversial Mitt Romney billboard campaign.” (Always be suspicious when the source of the controversy is the one to tell you there’s a controversy.) The billboard features a picture of Mitt Romney and reads, “If cheating on your taxes is okay, so is …” But the news reports really ramped up when the company’s founder, Noel Biderman, told reporters that the billboard had been taken down after just a day, because, he says, the company that sponsored the space received complaints. “They took my money and breached the contract,” Biderman complains to the Herald, who identifies the “they” as Black Dog Media in Pennington, New Jersey.

The reports also feature Biderman saying pious, preposterous things like,”Biderman hopes his stance against Romney could actually influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election,” in which case, we commend him on targeting Romney in a real swing state like Massachusetts (?)

Here’s the other thing about controversy: we can’t find evidence of any. None of the articles reporting on the billboard’s removal quote an outraged Romney supporter. The Romney campaign didn’t know about it, the Herald reports. We couldn’t find anyone on Twitter pointing out the billboard until they began linking to the media coverage that brought the billboard to their attention. Not even the media company that allegedly breached contract and took the billboard down is answering our or anyone else’s phone calls. In fact, we can’t even find a photo of the billboard that wasn’t provided by Ashley Madison. (Edit: delving into Instagram, we have, in fact, found another photo of the billboard. Point rescinded.)

If you’re looking for more evidence that this is a drummed up campaign for press, look no further than Ashley Madison’s previous drummed up campaigns for press. There was the time they offered to advertise with Rush Limbaugh just as other sponsors fled his program in the wake of his controversial comments about Sandra Fluke. There was the time they put Newt Gingrich on a billboard and said “Faithful Republican. Unfaithful husband.” There was the time … okay if you’re still curious, there’s actually a Huffington Post slideshow of their billboards. (Isn’t there always?) Suffice it to say, they know how to read the news and insert themselves into it in a way that guarantees coverage.

This isn’t so much a critique of Ashley Madison. They have their model, and it seems to work for them. (Here we are writing about them, after all.) We just think reporters should be sure that when they write an article, it’s because they are describing a controversy, not manufacturing one.