Streetcar ad mockup, courtesy of Ashley Madison.
Ashley Madison, the perennially controversial and perpetually amoral dating website for people looking to cheat on their spouses, aimed to wrap one streetcar in a massive end-to-end purple ad—”LIFE IS SHORT. HAVE AN AFFAIR.”—for twenty-eight days starting on January 11, 2010. So the Toronto-based company struck a deal with CBS Outdoor, the ad agency that handles the TTC’s advertising for buys like this, for $12,500, plus $30,000 for production of the wrap by vinyl graphics supplier Autograph Trim. (If the campaign were paying off, a representative of the company told Torontoist this morning, they’d extend it to five cars in February.) One condition in that contract, obtained by Torontoist, states that “The Transit Authority is the sole and final arbiter of creative. If intended creative content is controversial in any way, transit approval must be obtained before proceeding with production.”
Ashley Madison claims, and emails obtained by Torontoist show, that the dating company was told by a CBS Outdoor representative on December 9 that “Both the creative for the Articulated Subway Car wrap [above]…and the standard interior [below]…for the interior of the wrapped vehicle have been sent to the TTC for pre-approval. We have received approval for both the attached pieces of creative to run from the TTC.” In another email, a day later, CBS Outdoor claimed that “The creative was passed on two [TTC] ARC (Advertising Review Committee). This is made up of 4 city councilors.”
According to the TTC, though—their Advertising Review Commitee rejected the campaign this afternoon—that’s not what happened at all.
According to TTC Director of Communications Brad Ross, the Advertising Review Committee, composed of six (not four) councillors, only “got [the ad] for the first time” on Thursday, after “senior TTC staff saw the ad…and determined that ARC needed to weigh-in, as we did not feel the ad was appropriate.”
As the CBS contract with Ashley Madison points out, even if the ad had gone ahead as intended, it’s still within the TTC’s rights to order its removal:
“In the event any Transit Company or Authority, or its representatives shall disapprove any advertisement, or in the event of adverse publicity of any nature resulting from the presence of any display, the Company shall have the right to remove said advertisement forthwith and the Advertiser shall receive a pro rata credit from the date of removal of such advertisement…In the event such advertising becomes illegal or a request is received to terminate the advertising, the Company reserves the right to terminate same, but there shall be no short rate charge because of such termination.”
(Ross adds that any ad “that receives at least five public complaints [after it runs] is sent to ARC for review. They can either allow the ad to continue to run, or order it removed from the system.”)
We asked Ashley Madison earlier today if—whether or not they are ultimately rejected by the TTC—the ads had already served their purpose. If the only aim was to get the ads noticed, there are few more effective ways than landing them in the media.
Noel Biderman, Ashley Madison’s founder, told us (by means of a representative) that “Earned media has its place,” but that the company spends $10 million a year on advertising “because we know that our service is one that needs to be reinforced in the minds of consumers on a daily basis.” What’s more, he said, “90% of new member[s] join during office hours so advertising to them during the morning commute is also one of our marketing strategies….although we will get a sign-up blip today, having our ads on for an extended period of time would result in greater returns for our company. We still hope the TTC reconsiders and takes our ad.”
Emails to CBS Outdoor earlier today were not returned, but it looks as though—if Ashley Madison’s not forging documents—the advertising company is responsible for the mix-up and for Ashley Madison’s misplaced insistence on their ads’ prior approval (Biderman issued another statement this afternoon, saying that “It is becoming apparent that the TTC is going to back pedal out of this deal” and offering to knock the cost of a ride on the branded streetcar down to $2.50). The TTC, as it turns out, has simply decided to see other people.
All ad mockups courtesy of Ashley Madison.