aNewDomain — This morning Inc. magazine ran a story about its interview with OkCupid’s Christian Rudder, who told Inc.‘s reporter that Avid’s Ashley Madison is “not a dating website,” but rather, “a marketing scam” employing thousands of bots as a way of bringing male customers in.
We’ve yet to uncover a “scam,” as Rudder alleges, but our analysis of leaked emails and company docs, now widely available online, shows that Ashley Madison isn’t a dating site or dating service at all. Rather, it’s a sprawling international direct marketing affiliate business with hundreds of partners, small and large.
Rudder is right when he portrays Ashley Madison as not a dating site. That’s selling it way short. Rather, leaked emails now widely available all over the net show it’s an international direct marketing biz with hundreds of affiliates.
I reported this discovery a few days ago. Portraying Ashley Madison as a dating site, extramarital or otherwise, is like calling a Great White Shark a large fish. It’s way more than that. According to leaked emails now being widely analyzed by press and media all over the world, the direct marketing affiliate business seems to be the main activity, the one where it seems to focus a good part of its considerable energies, staff, manhours and attention.
By “it,” I mean Ashley Madison parent Avid Dating Life (ADL), dba Avid Life Media, Cougar Life Inc., Established Men Inc., Pernimus Ltd., ADL Europe and many more. In this article, I’ll use Ashley Madison and/or Avid to refer to the company, unless there’s a specific need to call out the other company names …
This reporter obtained a list of Ashley Madison affiliates four days ago and was able to confirm a random sampling of companies in it as rev share partners with Ashley Madison/Avid. That list includes company names, contact numbers, Avid sales rep information and rev numbers up to first quarter 2015.
Below, you can see how Ashley Madison sister site AshleyBabes.com drives you to affiliate AshleyMadison.com. And here are a couple of screenshots of how an interested website or company might apply. Ashley Madison tells users that it pays up to $200 for every guaranteed “sale,” and has an average payout of about $7,500 a month, according to this promotion of the affiliate program.
Also: There isn’t just one Ashley Madison. There are dozens more …
Think of Ashley Madison as a skin for virtually any male sexual fantasy you can think of, albeit a scantily clad or full frontal nude skin. There’s AshleyMadison.com, sure, but there’s also its hard core sis AshleyRNadison and AshleyBabes, presumably a marketing site, shown below. Other skinned and not-so-skinned sisters include CougarLife, Date Mrs.Robinson, EstablishedMen, ManCrunch, The Big & The Beautiful, and others you can read about below the fold.
Then there are the Ashley Madison sites it white labels for biz partners …
According to leaked emails shared online and viewable by anyone who cares to look, some examples of Avid/Ashley Madison affiliate/White label partnered sites include: ArrangementFinders.com, ErosDating.com, DateBrokeCollegeGirls.com, just to name a few.
And according to leaked affiliate marketing promos, any adult-targeted or techie-male site who wants to white label gets to take advantage of the extensive library of Ashley Madison images. It’s apparent many also get the right or privilege to run Ashley Madison privacy documents and terms of service agreements which, variably, go under various Ashley Madison corporate shells, including Cougar Life Inc. (CL), Established Men (EM), CL Media Inc., EM Media Inc., Totalicus Inc. (BVI), Avid Dating Life Europe (ADLE) and many more.
In addition, there also is apparently a deal for big dating sites that agree to post Ashley Madison as their sole go-to vendor in case customers are interested in extramarital dating, according to leaked emails allegedly from former Avid CEO Noel Biderman and other company execs.
And then there’s the international market …
One reader told us about Meechee, an apparent Ashley Madison white label site for the Japanese market. Its privacy and terms of service docs indicate it’s another Ashley Madison partner site, according to leaked emails now broadly available. There are many, many more unsubstantiated international sites that tie back to Ashley Madison, Avid or its various shells, but so far, we have no substantiation. Stay tuned.
What does native advertising (aka paid content) have to do with all this? Glad you asked …
Cleverly using promotion to get your name out is, according to Jezebel, one of the things Avid does most brilliantly. No one, however, is alleging that Ashley Madison is somehow behind its own hack as a promotional stunt, we should mention. Not only would that be ridiculous and dangerous for this otherwise buttoned up company to try doing, but it would be too big of a task for even the smartest and most nimble minds.
In my view, the real accomplishment this Toronto firm seems to have made: a huge, real and apparently profitable native advertising-driven promotions business, the leaked emails shared with aNewDomain and various social sites allege.
It’s a story that might explain the bizarre UK Daily Mail piece that ran right at the beginning of the Ashley Madison scandal, within days of security journalist Brian Krebs’ breaking news of the hack July 15. In that article, the hackers were quoted as saying the following to Ashley Madison/Avid execs, a quote that has been copied again and again as if it had real, non-sponsored roots.
That comment, in part:
Avid Life Media has been instructed to take Ashley Madison and Established Men offline permanently in all forms, or we will release all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails. The other websites may stay online …”
The Daily Mail piece reads like sponsored content, and it isn’t written in anything close to the style of the rest of that tabloid, and it employs ad-like copy, such as “Ashley Madison, which has been called the Google of pornography …”
If you google back some of those phrases, they seem to come from a Daily Mail sister company, the fairly controversial native marketing play, MailOnline.
We currently await comment here as well.
According to a 2014 article and profile by The Financial Times, this native advertising biz charges 65,000 pounds (UK) for 450,000 hits in the UK and, in return, guarantees 450,000 page views for (sponsored) content it runs around the Internet or shares via the social nets.
There’s no crime against native advertising, of course, nor is there a crime in paying 65K for MailOnline, Exoclick, TimesLive or any other native advertising business to write or run “sponsored copy” for you.
What’s worth noticing, though, is that hours after the first reported piece (by Brian Krebs) about the hack, sponsored content/native advertising sites seemed to pop up in concert in every corner of the world with the same promotional copy about “a hacker, called Vinniem,” “a site that has been called the ‘Google of Porn’ ” and quotes from “Impact Team” hackers decrying the “dirtbags” who ran AM, as well as the long list of hacker demands. All of this has been repeated countless times by news media, including this outlet, without anyone realizing that the source of all the hacker comments, so far, all come from various sponsored news stories — stories that sound so fake, there is not even an attempt to make anything sound real.
Here’s just one example of an early report that was heavily shared — it also reports some of the details from that original, apparently sponsored OnlineMail piece.
Leaked emails don’t mention the OnlineMail sponsored pieces that are the source of so much of what the media now quotes about the hack. They do mention, allegedly, other native advertising deals …
One leaked email celebrates the closing of a deal with The Huffington Post to run one sponsored Ashley Madison piece a week, a deal that even allowed an Ashley Madison digital marketing exec to gleefully participate in “actual” editorial meetings.
But that’s a small thing, really, compared with native advertising deals (managed by Pernimus, the Cypress shell doing business as Ashley Madison) it allegedly mentions.
Looking at them, the 65,000 pound price per story and 400K-plus hit guarantee seems like a deal. That quote should sound awfully familiar to you if you are following this story. Many emails mention the firm Exoclick and its invoices, ranging up to 100K, allegedly, to get Ashley Madison real visibility for content.
Another is TimesLive — a native advertising service that places articles in media in exchange for hits and a hefty price — also billing heavily for South African placements, the emails strongly suggest.
The leaked emails muddy the waters and beg so many questions. (We are awaiting comment from Exoclick and all the other native advertising companies mentioned in this story.)
Then again, the emails answer some other questions the media has found puzzling. Case in point: An Exoclick/Avid/Pernimus partnership as portrayed by the leaked emails provides a neat answer to Business Insider reporter Lara O’Reilly’s question as to why Pirate Bay was serving up ads for Ashley Madison in response to Ashley Madison data dump search queries after the leak.
Why use Pernimus, the Cypress shell for Ashley Madison, or its various British Virgin Island shells, as detailed here and alleged in many leaked emails?
Here’s one Avid exec with an explainer, according to the leaked emails allegedly from AM:
Pernimus Ltd is located in Cyprus due to many factors, however mostly due to the fact that most such companies are based in Cyprus (Limassol). Indeed, other factors include the tax synergies, (such as) the existence of a double tax treaty between Cyprus and Canada and beneficial VAT regime for cross EU transactions – however it is important to note, that Pernimus adopts a very generous … as opposed to aggressive … transfer pricing model (where) a margin of much higher than industry average stays available for taxation.”
If you’re wondering what kinds of pieces such companies have placed, look here:
Here’s a TimesLive piece from South Africa on July 20, the day the hack began to see heavy coverage.
Here’s another from 2014.
Many you can find online (google timeslive and ashley madison) seem to be focused on the ever popular top cheater sites in Chicago, South Africa, Japan, you guessed it. All read more or less the same, according to our analysis, most can be tracked back to DatingLive. Most include mentions in the leaked emails allegedly from Ashley Madison execs in sales reports and so on.
But still, many questions remain …
The main one still is the question that Toronto police, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies say is central to their investigations: Who hacked Ashley Madison?
The hackers reportedly only focused on Ashley Madison sign-up lists, source code and email lists, which is a great place for investigators to start. Finding a motive is the natural first step for centering in on a culprit.
But the motive, at least as reported, is shaky at best. Reportedly, hackers wanted to take down Ashley Madison because of the way they said Avid was keeping deleted profile information and using bots in the place of real women.
But the hacker(s) didn’t bother or didn’t know enough to share anything about the huge affiliate program or the partner names and deal details, all of which are easily findable in the leaked emails. The hacker(s) didn’t focus on any of AL’s international partners, nor on its well heeled investors, many of whom came from major world banks. Why?
Did hackers really, after seeing the data and emails now in the wild, not think Ashley Madison was anything more than a dating site? That’s a stretch.
The Ashley Madison hackers, indeed, never seemed like hackers — not really. What hackers deliver press statements, much less sexy, heavily produced multimedia network takeovers?
One thing is certain though. Ashley Madison has been a well known adult-targeted international affiliate network play for more than a thousand partners and affiliates worldwide for more than two years. Its affiliate network, according to affilliate information websites we found through affiliate.ashleymadison.com, seems to go back at least to 2009.
If the general press and its audience is only now beginning to understand that Ashley Madison is not a dating site but part of a huge network of sites and rev deals, one thing is certain. We were the last to know. As for the hackers, they seem to have had no clue about any of it — or they didn’t care.
Who needs Netflix when you’ve got the Ashley Madison scandal to focus on in the dying days of summer.
For aNewDomain, I’m Gina Smith.
Below, find an Avid Media letterhead document, found on ScribD and reloaded to my account, allegedly detailing the shell companies mentioned throughout this piece.
Several staffers and two security sources who asked not to be named contributed to this article.
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