In the competitive world of online dating, singles brand themselves as sexy commodities. But what happens when the wrapping comes off?

Published May 15, 2002 7:35PM (EDT)

The golden age of online dating is upon us. Just ask executives of, who last month reported a 195 percent increase in paid subscribers over the same quarter last year. Or look at Yahoo, where online personals have increased the company's revenues despite a decline in income from advertising. Or talk to any youngish single person in New York. When I asked a friend, who met her last boyfriend online, how many of her single friends had used or are currently using online dating services, she replied, "Pretty much all of them."

Look no further than the "Personals of the Day" you see pop up on this site, as well as the Onion and countless other sites, and you'll realize two things: One, online personals have become a major source of revenue for content sites, and two, there are some damn fine-looking young folks floating around out there. Unless Spring Street Networks, the source of those ads, has been inventing fictional singles with a crack team of models, stylists, marketers and professional photographers, there appear to be a great many attractive people online these days, shamelessly hamming it up in the hopes of meeting that special anyone.

It's a far cry from the spring of 1996, when I attended a party for that was populated primarily by computer programmers who looked like they hadn't left the server room of their start-up offices in several months, their only contact with other humans limited to those moments when they braved the weak San Francisco sunlight to fetch a banana moon pie from the company's vending machine, or to scuttle over to Cafe Centro for a quadruple nonfat latte. That tall blond girl who worked there sure was cute, but she was sort of mean!

Now that blond girl is prominently featured on the pages of, pensively biting a manicured finger while lounging across an unmade bed in her nightie under the moniker "sweet 'n' dirty."

So how did everything change so quickly, and why have people begun peddling themselves so shamelessly online?

The truth is, most young people see nothing the least bit embarrassing about online dating or "man shopping" as one woman referred to it in a recent New York Times article. Maybe kids today are far less self-conscious about romance and love in general, thanks to not having been exposed to "The Love Boat" during their formative years. The more likely explanation, though, is that the anonymity of the medium, the prevalence of blogs, online photo galleries and personal Web sites, and the comfort most of us feel in corresponding entirely through e-mail have combined to make online dating a perfectly acceptable means of meeting new people.

Demand creates supply. When you think for a minute about how inefficient and circuitous the traditional delivery system for meeting potential lovers is, it's not hard to see how we landed here. When your options are limited to getting set up by your friends, going out to parties or going to smoky bars in the hopes of getting drunk enough to knock over someone with a pulse, it's clear why shopping for a mate online has been embraced by mainstream America.

Imagine, if you will, trying to buy a food processor without a Best Buy, or a Macy's, or a Williams-Sonoma. Imagine if you had to go to crowded parties and other tedious functions and search the crowd for someone with an old Cuisinart at home that they might be willing to sell you. Furthermore, imagine if it were considered rude to bring up the Cuisinart straight off the bat -- instead, you were expected to ask people about themselves, maybe buy them a drink, and feign interest in their rambling, self-involved banter, until finally, at the end of the night, loosened up by a few drinks, you could say what had been on your mind for hours:

"Um. I hope this doesn't sound too forward, but do you ... process food?"

And despite all that effort, imagine that the person's face drops, and he or she replies politely, but in a clipped, uncomfortable tone, "No, I'm not really into that kind of thing," and then exits the party without even asking for your number in case he or she ever does get the urge to process.

Now that love has finally been commodified and booty has an efficient distribution system, it makes sense that the branding strategies of those peddling their goods and services have become increasingly finessed.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before we gave up on classified ads and moved on to a more dynamic format. After all, how long could the same classy DWM, 50s, keep trumpeting his love for red wine and red roses and cuddling to any SWF who's both idle enough and disturbed enough to pore over that minuscule print? As Scott Bedbury, the marketing strategist who helped to launch campaigns for Nike and Starbucks, writes in his book, "A New Brand World":

"The most innovative product line will grow stale in the minds of potential consumers if the marketing has become static, undifferentiated, or -- even worse -- irritating for lack of change."

A change has certainly come upon us. Browse the personals on or and you'll see for yourself: Gone are the candlelit dinners and the long walks on the beach. Cooking and travel and nights by the fire sound as old and lame as that "Like a Rock" theme song that Chevy can't seem to leave behind.

We've entered a new era of self-branding, featuring tasty professional photographs and sales pitches feistier than those dreamt up by a skilled copywriter. Today's online love-seeker isn't looking for someone who's "sexy and sophisticated and fit," he's looking for "[S]someone to end my hedonistic ways -- or someone to take me headlong deeper into them." You can almost hear Britney singing that bump-and-grind Pepsi theme song in the background: "The rrrride! Just enjoy the rrrrride! Don't need a reason why!"

That jingle doesn't actually include the word "Pepsi," by the way -- it's the natural evolution of ads that we move from an exhortation to consume the product ("Drink Pepsi!") to an invitation to enjoy a sensual experience that's only loosely (but inextricably) associated with the product ("Just enjoy the rrrride!"). Similarly, today's online ads are almost subliminal. What is he looking for? Not "a blue-eyed blond with a great rack." No! He's looking for "the connection, the compassion, the empathy and the acceptance we all seek." I had no idea Deepak Chopra was single!

In keeping with current advertising trends, today's online singles market themselves not by highlighting their best traits, but by creating an imaginary self that's impressively snarky and carefree. Much like the recent spate of humorous TV ads for serious products like Washington Mutual or Budget Rent-a-Car, many personal ads use humor to draw in potential customers. For "Best (or worst) lie I've ever told," one guy wrote, "I never lie." And I found more than one straight man who listed "Deliverance" as the source of his favorite on-screen sex scene.

Of course, Spring Street Networks deserves at least some of the credit for provoking participants into offering up such original and zesty prose. When "self-deprecation" is listed next to cigarettes and booze under "my habits," and you're asked to answer whether you indulge in it "often, sometimes, or never," the mind starts working in self-conscious yet creative new ways.

And who can't help but get a little clever or provocative when asked to fill in the following: "(blank) is sexy; (blank) is sexier." For example: "Flexibility is sexy; focus is sexier." Why not just say "Good sex is sexy; great sex is sexier"? Or how about this zinger: "Appearance is sexy; attitude is sexier." Sounds like the next Sprite campaign.

You have to hand it to these online daters for the enthusiasm with which they commodify themselves. Most seem unabashedly honest in exposing themselves, and few appear to be unfamiliar with the value-add. As Bedbury asserts, it's important to "know that your advertising must create a proposition that your product or service delivers on, time and time again." Accordingly, chirpy love-seekers offer up their services with the enthusiasm of merchants at a street market: "I visit the beach or the canyons at least once a week!" "I'm easy-going and intense!" "I give great massages!" And then there's the more subtle: "I love cunnilingus!"

Furthermore, Bedbury explains, the great brands tell a story, like a great piece of mythology, "with the customer, not the company, as the story's main protagonist." Our online love-seekers seem to sense this intuitively: "[You're] not someone who thinks 'Cathy' is funny, but someone who thinks 'The Jerk' is funny." "You love who you are, but you want so much more." "You'll love my vegan pancakes in the morning!"

And since we've become products ourselves, it make sense that we can only advertise ourselves by associating with other products. Indeed, each personal ad patches together an increasingly eclectic and romantic mélange of brands to create a signature brand: "The Anarchist Cookbook," Moroccan Mint loose tea, Jack Russell terriers, "Naked" by David Sedaris, Tenacious D, Williams-Sonoma, "North by Northwest" starring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, Vespas, late '60s Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The cultural references become dizzying after a while, with each brand standing on the shoulders of a million brands that came before it. Pepsi is Britney Spears is Marilyn Monroe is "Pleasantville" is the idealized '50s. Chevy is Bob Seger is the American Farmer is Marlboros is Wrangler Jeans is "The Grapes of Wrath."

But as online ads become more aggressive and clever and self-consciously crafted, what impact does that have on the human interactions that result from them? What does it mean to peddle yourself so effectively before you even meet your prospective partner? Can there possibly be any room left for the real, flawed, fragile human behind the ad?

And after buying into the suave vegan pancake-maker and cognac-sipping reader of Whitman, can you possibly accept the humble, nervous accountant who stands before you? With such a marketing blitz, followed by frisky, flirtatious instant messaging and countless e-mails, followed sometimes even by long midnight conversations and phone sex, is it remotely possible not to be disappointed with the real thing?

Like reading a book and then seeing the movie, you don't realize how much you've already painted a picture in your head until you see someone else's vision on the screen. Similarly, it's tough to know how much fantasy you're bringing to the table until you're sitting face to face, and you recognize suddenly that you'd ascribed a whole different set of verbal tics, affectations and gestures to the person in your mind without even knowing it.

The smallest thing about the person can send you spiraling inward, thereby shutting you off from the experience. You felt sure, based on his e-mails, that he wasn't a mouth breather! It seemed obvious, given the flirtatious confidence with which she approached you online, that she didn't have a flabby ass!

In "A New Brand World," Bedbury quotes University of Michigan business professors C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy who contend that a "product is no more than an artifact around which customers have experiences." Similarly, navigating today's online personals can feel more like an exercise in fantasy: We take the artifacts before us, and use our powers of imagination to create an idealized mate from these offerings.

Strange how easy and familiar this process is to us; but then, most relationships are at least 30 percent imagination. Without a fantasy-driven notion of themselves as a pair, most couples' relationships would collapse under the weight of years of compromise and self-sacrifice.

And besides, for as long as I've known her, my online dating friend in New York has been lamenting that she never meets any new men -- ever! Now she meets them all the time. They're not all perfect, and sometimes she's built them up in her mind only to be disappointed. But now at least she's getting out there and hanging out with new people, and for better or for worse, she says she has a real feeling of possibility.

"I might have stayed involved with the last guy even though it wasn't working, because I would've thought, I'll never meet anyone else!" she says. "Now I know I can just go online and meet someone else tomorrow." That's right. There are always more brands on the shelf -- I mean, fish in the sea.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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