While I was working at CBS, Ashley Madison's parent company publicly called me homophobic for not approving their crappy stunt of a Super Bowl ad.
Shhh...don't tell anyone we're the worst. (via AshleyMadison.com)
This week, Ashley Madison's parent company Avid Life Media confirmed that a team of hackers had breached security walls to obtain the personal information of 37 million members. The hackers are threatening to release private user information unless Avid Life takes down Ashley Madison—where married people can meet to have an affair—and another site, Established Men—where rich men can meet young, beautiful women.
I don't condone the release of people's personal information. What people are into privately is no one else's business. But man, am I experiencing some joy in seeing Avid Life Media and their CEO Noel Biderman scramble this week. You see, Noel Biderman doesn't know who I am. But Noel Biderman and I have beef.
For nearly 10 years, I supported myself by working in Television Standards & Practices. For the uninitiated, S&P is the department in charge of making sure that all content adheres to the guidelines of what the network deems acceptable for viewers. S&P people press the button when someone at an award show says “shit." They assign those ratings that pop up at the beginning of TV shows that you probably don't pay attention to. Every once in a while, Dan Harmon shows us some love by Instagramming a note where we ask him to lose a bunch of F-words.
On TV, we are both the angry suits in Studio 60 and the sweet, hapless Kenneth on 30 Rock. The truth is that S&P people fall somewhere in between. Most of us don't wear suits and only some of us are mountain people. Standards & Practices is a job. I fell into it because I wanted to be a TV writer. It was 2005, I'd just graduated college, and Turner Broadcasting wanted to hire me. I wasn't one of those lucky people whose parents could fund a few underemployed years in New York or LA.
People assume that the folks who work in Standards & Practices are unfunny stiffs who are offended by everything. That's not true. An S&P worker's entire job is to watch TV and take detailed notes when they see an actress's underboob. I once had a conference call with a team of passionate producers who made me listen to 10 fart sounds, so I could choose the one that was the least wet.
Most of us have a sense of humor. If we were the kind of people who were personally offended by the shit you see on TV, we couldn't work in S&P.
Which brings me to the worst week of my life—and my beef with Avid Life Media. It was January 2010. I was working at CBS in New York, and part of my job was to review advertising. CBS was gearing up for Super Bowl XLIV. The networks airing the Super Bowl take their review of advertising very seriously. There are a lot of people watching that game. Including the kind of people who are likely to be offended by the shit they see on TV. Do you remember how upset people were about Janet Jackson's nipple? CBS does, too. And they will never forget it.
That bitterly cold week in January, Avid Life Media submitted this ad for their gay hook-up site ManCrunch.
I didn't immediately respond to them. As days passed, the site's spokesperson Elissa Buchter told CNBC: “We've been unable to get a response. I think they're just going to stall as long as they can, so it doesn't appear as if they are rejecting the ad." The implication, of course, was that CBS was homophobic. What other possible reason could there be to not approve an ad celebrating a loving, gay relationship?
This is the reason: My dad died. Yes, that week. Out of the blue. He was 61.
When my dad died, there were a lot of difficult things I had to do. I had to find the strength to get out of bed and get dressed. I had to call my boss and tell him that I would not be coming to work, because my father was dead. I had to drive with my husband the 12 hours to North Carolina to be with my mother and brother. I had to stay there, in the house I grew up in, realizing that life would never be the same.
There is one thing that I did not have to do. And that is: Check my work email.
No, I did not check my work email the week my father died. And I didn't see, until a week later, that Noel Biderman and Avid Life Media were throwing a shit fit, because I hadn't looked at their shoddy Super Bowl ad.
By then, they were really thrilled with CBS's—and my—non-response. It's exactly what they wanted. Avid Life Media has been accused of a particularly obnoxious advertising tactic. Allegedly, Avid Life produces TV ads that are designed to be rejected, submits them to the networks—usually to air during major event like the Academy Awards or yes, the Super Bowl—and then, when the network invariably rejects it, they go to the press. They express mock outrage. How dare they reject our beautiful ad? Avid Life Media walks away with all of the press without having to pay for any of the airtime.
When I returned to work, I sent a report to reject the ManCrunch ad. Within the hour, my confidential report had been forwarded to dozens of press outlets, along with a press release that had clearly been ready to go for days. My name and phone number were attached.
I was 26. I was crying in bed, grieving for my father. My husband was in the next room, collecting all of the articles that used my full name and branded me a homophobe. According to Avid Life, CBS had proven once and for all, we would not air an ad with a gay kiss.
Yes, we rejected the ad. But here's the shocker. It wasn't because it showed two men kissing. As I said, S&P people aren't offended by much. Here is what I am offended by: The exploitation of discriminated people to further your own financial gain.
Take a look at that ad. The entire premise is how funny and weird it is that two guys would make out. How gross, right? Behind them, spot the “No Entry" and Stop signs.
Gay sex is reduced to a ploy for cheap laughs. And just in case you didn't get it, they included a guy at the end to serve as the audience proxy to find the coupling weird and uncomfortable.
But what if CBS didn't have a problem with that? Avid Life hedged their bets by dressing the actors in Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings jerseys. In order to show NFL jerseys, clients have to spend a lot of money to obtain licensing. Now, I'm not saying that Avid Life didn't spend a fortune to use those jerseys. But I will say that they definitely didn't send me any releases.
Furthermore, I've seen better-looking video produced with an iPhone. Avid Life claimed they spent $100,000 to make this ad. Noel Biderman? If you're reading this, please shoot me an email. I have a VHS camcorder. I'd gladly produce your next ad, and I'd only charge you $50k!
In the end, Avid Life Media got what they wanted. They got a lot of free publicity at CBS's and my expense. Having my name out there in a way that I couldn't control—and also in a way that didn't accurately reflect my own beliefs—sucked. At a time when life, for me, already really sucked. I also wasn't allowed to talk to the press at the time, no matter who called, and that really, really sucked.
I believe in karma, guys. I don't think it always works the way we'd want it to. And I also don't think we're punished for every mistake we make. But I do think that if you build your life on exploiting and hurting people, you will see the result of your actions.
Avid Life Media is a gross company that encourages people's grossest behavior and follows gross business practices. Ashley Madison? CougarLife? These sites aren't there to help people. Ashley Madison's motto is: Life is too short. Have an Affair.
Hey, Noel Biderman. Life is short. My dad taught me that the hard way. Here's a better motto: Life is too short. Don't be a dick.