“The model of monogamous marriage is not working.”
Christoph Kraemer is European Communications Director at extramarital dating site AshleyMadison.com. The second biggest paid dating site in the world, Ashley Madison has attracted huge numbers of users but also – not unexpectedly – a fair share of controversy. Unabashed, the company has recently expanded its operations in Central Europe, most recently in Poland, and now in the Czech and Slovak Republics. Alex Went spoke to him for Leaders Magazine.
Christoph, you are originally from Germany, but also spent time in the USA and Spain. Does this visit to Prague feel a bit like a homecoming?
I was born to a French mother and German father, so I suppose I had good European credentials from the start. After graduating in history from Yale, I returned to Europe – first in the music industry in what turned out to be the dying days of that particular market, and subsequently running my own concierge business in Barcelona right at the time of the worst financial crisis for decades!
I actually visited Prague in 1989, just before the Revolution. Of course, I’m hoping that the launch of Ashley Madison here will be a kind of second revolution. We plan to invest $10m in advertising and marketing for Central and Eastern Europe; and if everything works out, the Czech Republic will play a central and crucial part in the evolution of the brand.
How have your studies and travels coloured your attitudes and thinking about social and sexual matters?
In 2011 I spotted an advertisement for a position at a new online entertainment company which turned out to be Ashley Madison. I spoke to my French mother about it, and she was very relaxed, as she’d seen it all before – divorces, extramarital affairs – for her it was part of human nature. And as for my French grandmother, well, she just shrugged. This more relaxed attitude is simply part of the way they think.
Of course, there are always going to be naysayers, but I believe it’s Utopian to think that one person is going to make you happy for decades, and that’s particularly true in these days of increased life expectancy.
My degree is in history, and looking at the historical record it’s clear that marriage has changed over time. What used to be basically a socio-economic contract between families changed dramatically in the nineteenth century, with the mobility brought about by the industrial revolution, and the emphasis on passion and feelings brought about by romanticism.
And what about now?
What’s very clear is that the model of monogamous marriage is not working. People are now creating their own kinds of relationships. Just as single parents were deemed unacceptable twenty years ago, and gay marriage is still not accepted in all quarters, so relationships outside marriage – single or even ‘polyamorous’ (with several partners) will take time to become accepted.
The Catholic Church has been one of your fiercest critics. You recently launched in Poland. What has been your experience so far?
Poland is doing very well. It may come as a surprise to learn that Ashley Madison always does well in highly conservative areas. The more things are forbidden, the more people seem to want to taste the forbidden fruit. You can see the same thing in the Bible Belt of the USA, and also in Spain (with more than 1 million members), where one part of the population since Franco has been very liberal and progressive, and the other half deeply religious and conservative.
Till death do us part? No – everything argues against it. Monogamy is anti-natural. It’s simply not built into our DNA. Many studies agree that, biologically speaking, women are programmed to look for new partners every four years after the birth of a child. It’s nature’s way of improving the evolution of the race.
In Spain you ran a billboard campaign for AM featuring King Juan Carlos, Prince Charles and Bill Clinton, with the strapline ‘They should have used Ashley Madison’. The Czech Republic has its own fair share of public figures of fun. You must have had some fun deciding who to choose for the campaign here!?
One of our goals when using celebrities is to show a sense of humour. But also to show all the Joe Smiths on the street that cheating occurs at every socio-economic level and that those who cheat should not feel ostracized for cheating and that really there’s no need to be embarrassed, because cheating is human. The Spain campaign was a way of doing this. Don’t get me wrong: having lived and worked in Barcelona for many years, I’ve always deeply admired King Juan Carlos – but he’s human. Up until the time of our campaign there had been no really controversial coverage of the Spanish Royal Family – but I’m no respecter of pedestals. We were pretty confident that a campaign along similar lines could work here!
A survey in 2009 conducted by the Sexology Institute of the 1st Medical Faculty at Charles University suggested that both extramarital affairs and Czechs’ acceptance of them had declined markedly in the twenty years after the Velvet Revolution. What does your current market research tell you? If this trend is still true, what do you intend to do to reverse it?
You always have to take these statistics with a grain of salt. A study at Ohio State University suggests that both sexes give highly exaggerated answers to questions about their preferences. But I can tell you that in the Czech Republic the divorce rate is one of the highest in the EU, so the 500,000 visitors to our site we have had in the Czech Republic within just two weeks of launching the site at the beginning of July was not so much of a surprise.
Do you feel Ashley Madison legitimizes or encourages extramarital affairs, making them part of the mainstream? What do you say to those who accuse you of breaking marriages or encouraging deceit?
Basically, our job at Ashley Madison is to de-demonize – to destigmatize – such affairs, and to bring infidelity to wider public debate. And also of course to provide that all-important safe, secure and anonymous environment for meetings between lovers.
If you are 100% happy in your relationship, then nothing a website tells you is going to convince you to cheat. People need variety. You may love football and opera, but you wouldn’t expect your football fan friends to accompany you to the Marriage of Figaro. We should feel able to have different partners in the same way that we have different circles of friends. There’s a famous case from the United States in which two people dating on Ashley Madison, both unhappily married, divorced their respective partners and married.
Affairs do not need to be marriage breakers – 84% of our users tell us that they still love their partner.
The Czech Republic is at the forefront of tech startups, some of which have become internationally well-known brands. How would you feel about having your idea poached? Would it be a bit like your partner having an affair?
Just as trust is important in our (strictly anonymous) dating service, so we want to be seen as a trusted company. Trust and openness are at the heart of our operations, and we believe that these values are strong and not vulnerable to competition.
And getting the right partner is of course the best way of strengthening any relationship. That’s why we have very high hopes for the Czech Republic launch. It has been the long-held dream of our founder Noel Biderman to sponsor a major sports team, and here in the Czech Republic we believe we may have found a favourable partner in the form of Sparta Prague, with whom we have had very positive and confident meetings so far.
Christoph, thank you again for speaking with Leaders Magazine. There’s no question that Ashley Madison will continue to make headlines, and we look forward to seeing how you get on in what could turn out to be a significant new marketplace.
by Alex Went