ATLANTIC CITY - Forget Chicago. This is Ashley Madison's kind of town.
In case you've never heard of Ashley Madison, she's definitely not everyone's kind of girl. For one thing, she doesn't exist, except in a dot.com sense. But what a lot of people really hate about www.ashleymadison.com is that it's a dating website for married customers. In other words, the site helps people cheat on their spouses, or have an affair.
That would explain the billboard that's been catching eyes lately on the the Black Horse Pike entrance to Atlantic City, featuring the company's marketing motto: "Life is Short. Have an Affair."
And that billboard was just the start of an Ashley Madison push into Atlantic City, says the company's president, Noel Biderman. Ashley Madison always follows up its billboards with radio and TV ads in the same market, and it has already had prime, morning drive-time spots on two local rock stations, he says.
The site also has ads on two national cable channels available in southern New Jersey, "but a local buy is in the works where we plan on focusing on news and sports," Biderman says.
And even if Toronto-based Ashley Madison has done plenty of advertising since its 2007 opening in the United States, the billboard-led local campaign isn't just one of many around the country for the company now. Ashley Madison has only "seven or eight" billboards up in the U.S. right now, most of them in much bigger cities, Biderman says, and it's moving in here because he believes a gambler's paradise may also be a cheater's paradise.
"It's definitely a push in Atlantic City," he says, in a phone interview, based on the theory gamblers are, by definition, people who don't mind taking risks.
"What's the biggest risk you take in life? It's gambling with your financial security, whether it's in the stock market or on cards," he says. "The other risks you can take are in your personal life, and having an affair is a big risk. ... We cater to that, but we mitigate it too."
His Web site claims 6.8 million registered members, roughly a third of them "active" at any one time. It also claims to be the "world's premier discreet dating service" - discreet is a key word for Ashley Madison, one that pops up often in its self-promotions.
The company's tailoring of its message to the local audience includes the artwork on the board - a picture of two playing cards, a king and queen, looking especially, well, happy, with each other. Ashley Madison also always likes to give its ads local appeal, Biderman adds: His first billboard, in Los Angeles, was styled after a movie poster, and in New York, the picture was a "hotel room with a door-knocker sign."
But on Atlantic City's Boardwalk the other day, no one who saw a picture of the company's "Have An Affair" billboard - some of whom had also spotted the billboard itself on the road - seemed to find it too appealing. At least no one admitted to it, although the reaction to the logic of the company's local push was more mixed.
"I disagree," said Rob Morini, 59, a businessman who was visiting from Pittsburgh and waiting on the Boardwalk for a morning walk with his wife. "I have a couple buddies who love to gamble ... but they would never think of cheating on their wives."
He's obviously not arguing nobody in Atlantic City cheats, or no gamblers cheat. But "that's anywhere," he said, and from his experience, Atlantic City would be a tough place to try to be discreet - he lives 300-plus miles away, but he always runs into friends or acquaintances from home here.
Then again, Bob Pantalena, a retired state parole officer from Ventnor, didn't see the Ashley Madison logic as being so flawed.
"Any city that has a motto of 'Always Turned On' should probably expect ads like that," Pantalena, 68, said, relaxing on a Boardwalk bench with two friends.
But he's no fan of either the city's marketing motto or Ashley Madison's, Pantalena added.
"We need more family stuff. There's no reason why Atlantic City shouldn't be a family resort," he said.
Outside a family-style water-ice shop a few blocks away, friends Janice Alfano and Candace Stamelos agreed they don't agree with Ashley Madison's reasoning that the odds favor gamblers being more likely to be marriage cheats than non-gamblers.
"I think that's two different things," said Alfano, 50, who lives in Franklin Lakes, Bergen County, and was visiting her old friend for the weekend at Stamelos' Galloway Township home. Stamelos, 53, she she'd never seen the billboard before somebody showed her a picture, maybe because she doesn't get into Atlantic City much.
But now that she has seen it, she added, "It's not very nice."
Back in Toronto, Biderman said he understands he doesn't run the world's most popular business.
"Nobody's handing me humanitarian awards right now," he said. "The Nobel Prize committee is not coming after Ashley Madison."
But he acknowledged, happily, his company is something of a magnet for publicity - often of its own making. For instance, this Atlantic City billboard isn't the first time Ashley Madison made news in New Jersey this year. The company also got a big blast of media attention when it offered $5 million a year in June to buy the naming rights for the new Meadowlands football stadium - in other words, to have the NFL's New York Giants and Jets play their home games in Ashley Madison Stadium.
"We were never officially turned down, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen, even if we raise the offer," says Biderman, who was also shut out when he tried to buy a Super Bowl commercial advertising the advantages of extra-marital affairs.
"We want that marketing opportunity," Biderman said, earnestly. "But even if we can't get that, it tends to be an interesting story."
So yes, almost any publicity can be good publicity for this young business. But even before another news story comes out looking into "the most controversial website ever created," in Biderman's words, and its controversial push into a new market, he said he was already getting ready to push even harder here.
Its early ads amounted to "a test to see if Atlantic City had enough cheaters to make it a viable market," Biderman said. And the results?
"Our test was very successful, and we plan on expanding our marketing initiatives 10-fold," he said in an e-mail.
In other words, Atlantic City, get used to seeing - and hearing from - Ashley Madison.
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