Chemistry.com, the online dating site for rejects.

Advertising deconstructed.
July 2 2007 6:45 AM

The Online Dating Site for Rejects

Are those Chemistry.com ads working?

Rejected by eHarmony.

The Spot: A man is flipping through a nudie magazine. He opens up to a photo spread, takes a good long leer, and then closes the magazine and shrugs. "Nope," he says. "Still gay." A big red stamp slams across his face, reading: "Rejected by eHarmony." The announcer says, "Who knows why eHarmony has rejected over 1 million people looking for love? But at Chemistry.com you can come as you are." (Click here to watch ads from the Chemistry.com campaign.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The dating Web site eHarmony has a heteros-only policy, and lately it's been catching a lot of flak for that. A gay California woman filed a lawsuit last month accusing eHarmony of discrimination. Adding fuel to the fire: eHarmony's founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, is an evangelical Christian, and his background includes close ties to the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

Ad Report Card reader K.P. e-mails: "As a gay man, I am outraged at eHarmony's refusal to allow guys who like guys or girls who like girls to post ads on their site. I recently was watching NBC during a sporting event on a Saturday afternoon and saw the ad for Chemistry.com. It stopped me dead in my tracks and made me so happy that I laughed out loud."

The Chemistry.com campaign had the opposite effect on eHarmony—so much so that, according to the Washington Post, eHarmony's legal counsel tried to get the ads altered or taken off NBC. Dr. Warren himself has defended eHarmony with a couple of different arguments, laid out in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air: 1) He says eHarmony's partner-matching algorithms have been derived through studying successful straight marriages. Having done no studies on how to identify good gay matches, eHarmony declines to even take a stab at it. 2) He says eHarmony's goal is creating marriages, and since same-sex marriage is "largely illegal" that's an "issue for us."

I call complete bullpoo on both these rationales. Healthy long-haul relationships look the same all over the world, and all over the demographic map. If Warren needs to see more data before he accepts that, he should go out and gather it. There's no shortage of happy gay couples to study. And the financial incentive is obviously there—so what's stopping him?

With regard to the marriage issue: Dating sites don't perform wedding ceremonies. The product on offer here is love. If a couple subsequently wants some sort of state-sanctioned union, or not, that's the couple's business. (And a gay couple can always move to Massachusetts if marriage is a must.)

As for Chemistry.com, if K.P.'s reaction is any guide, the company has a winning pitch. Perhaps it can even corner the market on gay online dating through the appeal of this gay-friendly spot. My hunch is that's a lucrative niche. As K.P. puts it: "I mean we date … a lot. In fact, I think it's fair to say that gay men were the trailblazers of the online dating game."

So the "Nope, still gay" ad is great. But let's set it aside for the moment. What about the other ads in Chemistry.com's current campaign—the ones targeted at straight guys and gals? Apparently, lots of people answer eHarmony's long list of personality questions only to reach a screen that says, "Unable to match you at this time," with no further explanation. According to USA Today, eHarmony rejects 16 percent of applicants because they're "poor marriage prospects." The pitch to these folks isn't that eHarmony has ruled them out categorically, as it has with gays. The pitch is that Chemistry.com will welcome their business, even if they didn't make the grade at eHarmony.

These hetero-targeted ads show pleasant-looking people wondering why eHarmony negged them. They seem to doubt their own self-worth. "I am a good person, right?" anguishes a woman in one ad who's gotten the eHarmony stiff-arm. "Can't a girl get some love?" pleads a woman in another spot.

This strategy might woo people who have actually attempted to sign up for eHarmony and been rejected. But those who are entirely new to the online dating scene might be put off. If I were single and choosing which dating site to try, I don't think an open-floodgates admissions policy would be a key selling point. I'd demand a little screening and selectivity. The ad campaign conveys just the opposite.

Rejected by eHarmony.

What's more, the people in the ads come off as insecure, damaged goods. Frankly, I wouldn't want them in my dating pool. Especially not that woman wearing a mini-vest over a scoop-neck top. Lady, your first step to getting a date is ditching that unfortunate ensemble. Grade: A for the gay-themed ad, C- for the others.

Housekeeping item: In a recent Ad Report Card about vitaminwater, I said that Gatorade would never use a nonathlete celebrity in its ads. Several readers pointed out that rapper L.L. Cool J appeared in a Gatorade ad in 2004. True! Mama said knock me out! In my defense, three years is a lifetime when it comes to brand image. I still don't think the Gatorade of 2007 would feature a nonsports celebrity in an ad. (Now watch Elton John show up in a new Gatorade campaign next week.)

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