By Marc Jampole
Do Americans want a “Big Brother” figure involved in their intimate relationships?
That’s what eharmony.com, one of the largest dating sites in the world, seems to be saying in a commercial that it aired two years ago and recently resurrected with some fresh vignettes.
Underlying the imagery is a sleazy subtext that suggests the possibility of a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be EHarmony founder, Neil Clark Warren.
Here are the vignettes that visually dominate the current versions of the ad:
- A man and a woman take a romantic ride in a horse carriage. As the carriage moves past the screen, we see that Warren is sitting with them in the open cab.
- A man and woman are getting cozy on a couch, about ready to watch TV when Warren sits down between and the woman offers him a large bowl of popcorn and starts munching.
- At the beach, a woman gives a man a drink with a little hat or umbrella in it and turns to her other side and gives a drink to Warren.
- My favorite because it is so overtly sexual: An African-American man gives his African-American girlfriend a ring at a fancy restaurant, then she reaches across the table to show the ring to Warren, who comments about his role in the selection. At the end of this vignette, the black man and Warren bump fists, much as they might after cackling about conquests.
In all of these vignettes, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment that typically leads to a sexual experience, turning the scene into symbolic ménage a trois. In all cases, Warren enjoys the romantic activity with the couple, which of course, implies that he will also enjoy what comes later. It’s pretty smarmy, whether you conceive of Warren as participating or merely watching.
Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is eharmony.com.” “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that eHarmony.com is responsible for a large part of all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the eHarmony website that 438 members get married every day, plus the implication that they marry other eHarmony members, that’s not a lot of marriages. Experts predict that there will be about 2.2 million marriages in the United States in 2015. An average of 438 members married a day makes eHarmony responsible for about 80,000 marriages a year at the very most, or about 3.6% of the total. That’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every marriage involves a great relationship. The claim in the TV ad goes far beyond exaggeration. It’s an outright lie.
More disturbing than this false claim, which most will easily see as self-serving puffery, is the hidden message that eHarmony makes by injecting its founder—a white male dressed in a traditional formal suit—into the happy relationships it shows in the ad. The elderly well-dressed white male has been a symbol of authority since humans began conjuring symbols. EHarmony could have just as easily built put a computer or another representation of its survey questionnaire into the ad as the “third party” (of “secret sauce,” as eHarmony says on its website!). As a sort mechanism, the eHarmony questionnaire probably works as well as joining other dating services or singles clubs, bar-hopping, attending singles dances, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony.
But the ad is not saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our white male Christian founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “key dimensions” of compatibility be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other. Put us directly into the world you build with your significant other.
Here’s where it gets creepy! Warren is a Christian theologian who first marketed the eHarmony dating site on Christian websites and in other Christian media, touting eHarmony as “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.” EHarmony now claims to be secular and advertises everywhere, plus it has affiliate websites for Asian, black, Christian, senior, Jewish and Hispanic dating.
The hidden message in the ad, however, reflects an authoritarian Christian outlook. One of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism is that god is part of the marriage, almost a third person in the relationship. Whether taken on a literal or figurative level, “god in the marriage” represents both the person of god and the principles of action that supposedly lead us to god.
One traditional image of god is as a wise old man. Moreover, a genial grandfatherly man has served as an image for pastors, rectors, priests and other human figures of religious authority for centuries. The hidden message of the ad then is that eHarmony will bring god (or the religious and ethical values god represents) into the relationship. It’s easy to make the assumption that the god in question is Christian. Moreover, Warren has made the round of mainstream and religious talk shows in the past, and so many will recognize him as an authority figure who promotes Christian values in relationships. So men needn’t fear—that other guy in bed with you and your woman is not another guy—it’s the kindly (and fun-loving) white male god who rules over and protects all of us.
The commercial unfolds so slickly—a few story lines, a voice over delivering the uplifting message and feel-good gospel pop music in the background. Like all TV commercials, it goes by so quickly that we are unaware or only vaguely aware of the subliminal messages. But make no mistake about it—the ad is meant to appeal to those who want someone to tell them what to do, whom to love, how to get it right. Warren and his key dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.