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 has been airing for many months now.
The imagery is a bit smarmy, because it suggests a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be eharmony.com founder, Neil Clark Warren.
Here are the three vignettes that visually dominate this 30-second ad:
- A man gives a woman an engagement ring and the woman shows it to Warren who says, “We took the platinum setting.”
- 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.
In all three, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment, making it a kind of ménage a trois.
Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is eharmony.com.” Let’s take a moment for the meaning of this statement to sink in: “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that eHarmony.com is responsible for all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the eharmony.com website when it says that a recent Harris Interactive survey found that an eHarmony match led to almost 4% of all U.S. marriages in 2012, that’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every great 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. It’s an authoritarian symbol. It’s one thing to use eHarmony and its questionnaire as a tool to sort potential mates. As a sort mechanism, it’s probably works as well as bar-hopping, joining singles clubs, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, using personal ads or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony. But the ad is not just saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “29 dimensions of compatibility” be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other.
As many OpEdge readers probably know already, 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 claims to be secular and now advertizes everywhere, but think about it: Isn’t one of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism 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 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. The assumption, of course, is that the god in question is Christian.
It’s all done so fast—three story lines, a voice over and all that 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 29 dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.