His website, Ashley Madison, has helped millions of marriage-weary clients cheat discreetly. Some people say this makes him a first-class sleazebag, but Noel Biderman says he’s simply a realist. We sat down with the Toronto-based businessman to discuss international expansion, unfaithful Toronto ’hoods, and why being a 24-year-old virgin is waaay overrated.
This spring, your company offered a million dollars to anyone who could disprove New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow’s claim that he’s a virgin. How goes the quest?
I think we’ve pretty much abandoned that mission after realizing how difficult it was to disprove. We had a few thousand people send stuff in—like pictures of someone’s junk, or videos where you couldn’t make out who it was. We were looking for what we call digital lipstick, like a text or video conversation. Something conclusive.
You certainly managed to get a lot of attention, so was it sort of a win-win?
Yes, the challenge got a lot of coverage, but I’m not sure that we achieved our goal, which was to dispel this idea that Tim Tebow should be adored because he is a virgin at 24. That is just a ridiculous notion.
You seem to have a gift for publicity stunts. Is there one you’re most proud of?
I’m not particularly proud of any of them. I wish we lived in a society where I could speak to the audience I want to speak to with an unencumbered voice. I would love to advertise on regular networks but, unfortunately, I’m not allowed to do that. So I have to manufacture non-traditional promotional opportunities instead. CBC, CTV, ESPN—all of these networks that are in the broadcast business have slipped into the judgment business.
Ashley Madison recently released some data on the most infidelity-friendly neighbourhoods in Toronto. How did you come up with that info?
What we’re actually breaking down is how many people per capita in any given neighbourhood use Ashley Madison. We feel like it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the landscape. Studying the topic of infidelity is difficult because people don’t tend to put up their hands and identify themselves as unfaithful.
The Beach, Forest Hill, High Park, and Rosedale ranked highest in Toronto. So, are rich people are less likely to be faithful?
Certainly there’s a link. Anybody who is removed from his or her immediate family for extended periods—a politician, a rock star, or a even a CEO—is going to be more fallible and they are also going to face more temptation. Also, the kinds of people who succeed in life are generally risk takers, which may apply to a number of aspects in life.
How does Canada rank in terms of infidelity?
Hard to say, since we’ve been in Canada for 10 years, whereas we’ve only been in the States for seven. We’ve been in South Africa for just a few months, and we launched in Italy a year ago.
Does Italy really need a cheating website?
I guess they do, because we do really well there. One of the main reasons that people come to a website like Ashley Madison is because they want to try something different. Rightly or wrongly, they think the whole world is swinging and they’re tired of vanilla. They want a Baskin-Robbins opportunity.
I think by now there should be a lot more than that.
You are the driving force behind Ashley Madison and yet you have been happily and faithfully married for almost a decade. How does that work?
If you wanted to get divorced, would you walk into an attorney’s office and say, “Are you divorced?” or would you ask, “Do you know the law?” In my field, it’s about understanding the mind of your customer.
And how do you understand cheaters so well?
I do a lot of reading and my own market research.
Do you remember the moment when the idea for the site came to you?
I was reading an article where the author said she would never recommend online dating to a female friend because half the guys on there are actually married. I thought, “That’s the market.”
Any advice for those of us who still want to be in successful monogamous relationships?
Start a cheating website and get sick of the notion of cheating. My guess is, if you open a candy store you’ll start to get sick of eating candy. I talk about cheating 24/7, so for me the appeal is lost.
Who is Ashley Madison?
She doesn’t exist. When I came up with the idea for the website I thought that if I could get the women, the men would follow. At the time, Ashley and Madison were the two most popular female baby names in America, so I just figured women will have affinity with those names.
One of your ads suggests that guys cheat because they are in sexless marriages with overweight women who snore. Isn’t that a bit simplistic?
I notice that you didn’t comment on the female version of this ad, where it looks like she’s on an awful blind date with this guy who is texting and flirting with other women and then it turns out she’s on her anniversary dinner. The fact is that there are millions of men out there who are no longer physically attracted to the person they are married to. If you want to vilify those people, I think that’s a very simplistic view.
Another similar ad features a skinny woman with a check mark beside her and an obese woman with an X-mark beside her, accompanied by the headline “We call it as we see it.” So, skinny women are less likely to get cheated on?
I don’t think that’s the right conclusion to draw. You asked before how a happily married husband succeeds in this business. It’s because I know what’s going on in the minds of my customers. I’ve heard it. I sign up a new member every seven seconds. I have studied 14 million people who are at the starting point of having an affair.
And I guess you wouldn’t be offended by an ad that had an X-mark beside a balding man and a check beside a guy with a full head of hair?
Of course not. I don’t have any problem with telling the truth.
JFK or Clinton?
Jackie or Marilyn?
Favourite time of day?
The Ex or Canada’s Wonderland?
iPhone or BlackBerry?
Desert island album?
U2’s The Joshua Tree.
Favourite ice-cream flavour?