Christians out of the mainstream

rejectedbyeharmonyFor over a year, I've been intrigued by Chemistry.com commercials that go on the attack against the internet dating site eHarmony. It's only mildly surprising for an upstart company to go after a major player in the market by trying to squeeze out some niche audience. But Chemistry.com goes after its competitor in a way that strikes me as somewhat self-defeating. The advertisements complain that eHarmony screens out people who aren't happy enough or whose morals are considered suspect. Assuming that single women are the prize customers of most internet dating services, saying that your company is much less picky than another company is such an odd way to go about getting customers.

As I learned when I wrote about a New York Times story about Chemistry.com last December, the ads are part of a larger campaign targeting eHarmony for only matching single people looking for opposite-sex partners. I still think a line from that Times story was funny:

EHarmony, which is based in Pasadena, Calif., and was founded in 2000 by Dr. Warren, a clinical psychologist, has long been criticized for its practice of turning away applicants who are gay or lesbian, married or serially divorced.

Again, in the murky world of internet dating, keeping out the married dudes is not usually considered a liability -- at least by the people I hang around with. Having said that, two of my dear friends who got married in October met each other through Match.com. And the bride refused to try eHarmony because they don't match homosexual couples. So Chemistry.com is certainly tapping into something.

Anywho, Newsweek religion reporter Lisa Miller jumps into the fray with a story about a lawsuit in California accusing eHarmony of discriminating against gays. The story is engaging and informative, but also a bit condescending:

eHarmony, which has had 20 million users since its founding in 2000, promotes itself as the dating service your mother would approve of. Its implied promise: that in this world of hookups, eHarmony can get you hitched. Lately, though, the company has faced a public relations crisis, triggered both by a competitor's clever advertisements and by a lawsuit charging that eHarmony discriminates against gays and lesbians. Founded by a 72-year-old Christian self-help author named Neil Clark Warren, the dating site requires users to answer 256 questions about personality traits and values. Then, with the help of a complex algorithm, it matches people with much in common. Warren's philosophy is as comforting as mashed potatoes: "It is so much better to love someone who is a lot like you," he told National Review in 2005. A company spokeswoman boasts that 236 eHarmony users marry every day.

A "dating service your mother would approve of," "as comforting as mashed potatoes." The truth is that eHarmony is a very profitable powerhouse. Are they really facing a public relations crisis? Maybe they are. Or maybe the Chemistry.com ads are driving people to their internet doorstep. Some numbers to quantify the statement are in order.

Among the young and the single--especially those with Blue State values--wariness about eHarmony runs high.

Again, this may or may not be true. It's very easy -- and makes the story so much better -- to quantify this.

Trickier (from a PR point of view), eHarmony rejects about 20 percent of its applicants and doesn't fully explain why. The Internet is abuzz with possible explanations, and last year a savvy competitor called Chemistry.com capitalized on these suspicions. In television ads, seemingly eligible young people face the camera and complain that they returned their library books on time or were only occasionally depressed--and still were rejected by eHarmony. These ads drew a bright line: Chemistry.com is for people who believe in love and romance; eHarmony is for squares who follow an indecipherable set of rules. An eHarmony spokeswoman explains that the site rejects people who are underage, already married or dishonest--as well as those whose answers raise flags about their mental health.

eh home main A company that is in a position to reject 20 percent of its applicants for being married, underage, dishonest or not well mentally is not necessarily in a tricky PR situation. Yes, savvy competitors can and should try to fill a niche. This is America. The nightclub with a doorman and rope line that doesn't let everybody in can be frustrating, but it's usually not portrayed as having a PR problem.

Miller explains that eHarmony was first marketed with the help of James Dobson of Focus on the Family but that the two have since severed their relationship. It was this concluding paragraph that the reader who sent in the story bristled at:

A company lawyer explains that eHarmony makes matches based on unique scientific research into what makes heterosexual unions work; it hasn't done the same kind of work on gay unions, though it doesn't rule out such research in the future. While this explanation may be true, it also sidesteps the real problem. eHarmony was founded eight years ago by a conservative Christian who had a passionate interest in the benefits of shared values in heterosexual marriage--and he sold this formula within the Christian world. (Warren was not available for comment.) Today, the company desires to reap the economies of scale offered by a mainstream clientele, and in the wider world, shared values are not as easy to compute.

The phrasing is a bit clumsy. It could read that the "real problem" is that eHarmony was founded by a "conservative Christian." She's trying to make a marketing point, but the phrasing is imprecise. And even her marketing point is demeaning. In what way are Christians not a "mainstream clientele"? Even if you accept the contention (made without substantiation) that young blue staters are wary of eHarmony, what makes them more mainstream than Christians? And if eHarmony is having trouble marketing to the "wider world," than why does it have 17 million registered users?

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