By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007; D01
You think the dating scene can be cold and unforgiving? It may not be half as frosty as the tempestuous relationship between two of the biggest players in the online dating business.
A name-calling catfight, complete with accusations and counter-accusations, has broken out between eHarmony.com and an offshoot of Match.com over a subject familiar to any luckless dater:
In its latest ad campaign, online matchmaker Chemistry.com shows no love for eHarmony.com, its older and larger competitor. Chemistry's TV commercials and magazine ads feature young men and women wondering why their applications to join eHarmony were turned down.
"I mean, I am a good person. Right?" asks an actress in one of the TV spots, as a giant red "Rejected by eHarmony" graphic slams onto the screen. The ads note that eHarmony has rejected more than one million people who are "looking for love."
No fair, says eHarmony, concerned that its rival's ads suggest that eHarmony is being arbitrary -- or worse, racially and religiously discriminatory -- in turning people away. It wants Chemistry.com's ads changed or dropped.
To that end, the company's outside legal counsel, Lanny J. Davis (who spun the media for President Bill Clinton during his "relationship problems" with Monica Lewinsky), last week asked NBC and People magazine to stop running Chemistry.com's current ads, or at least insist on some fine-print qualifiers about what "1 million rejected" really means. (As of Friday, NBC hadn't responded to Davis; People magazine said that it wasn't taking sides in the feud and that it would continue running the ads.)
The complaint offers a glimpse into the online dating world, which has grown in just a few years into a big-money business, with tens of millions of participants and only a few major players.
EHarmony, which is privately owned and is based in Pasadena, Calif., says that more than 13 million people have signed up for memberships since its inception in 2000. Dallas-based Chemistry.com, founded last year, is a fast-growing upstart that says 2 million people have used its service. It is part of IAC/Interactive Corp., Barry Diller's conglomerate, which had $6 billion in sales last year and which also owns dating industry leader Match.com, as well as Ticketmaster, HSN (formerly Home Shopping Network) and the search engine Ask.com.
Although some specialized services, such as the Jewish-oriented J Date, seek people from particular backgrounds, general services such as Match, Yahoo! Personals and Chemistry are open to almost all adults who apply and pay a monthly fee.
EHarmony -- founded by a clinical psychologist named Neil Clark Warren, who appears in many of the company's ads -- is more selective. The company acknowledges that it routinely rejects certain types of people.
EHarmony, in fact, says that it has rejected about a million people since its inception. But the company insists that the reasons aren't arbitrary, that it has never collected any fees from those it rejected, and that Chemistry is trying to suggest otherwise.
The biggest reason for rejection, it says, is that the applicant is married. Stunningly, nearly one-third of the company's rejects (30 percent) fell into this category. Others are blocked because they're younger than the minimum application age of 21 (27 percent) or because the applicant gives inconsistent answers (9 percent), based on responses to eHarmony's 258-question application.
"We were founded with the mission to find happy, lasting relationships for people," Greg Waldorf, eHarmony's chief executive, said in an interview last week. "It pains me that we're being put down or criticized for ensuring that we're doing the best job possible for our members."
But eHarmony also turns people away for more controversial reasons. One is being gay. Chemistry.com notes as much in an ad that shows a young man leafing through a magazine that appears to be Playboy; he's more amused than aroused by what he sees. "Nope," he says with a sigh, "still gay." Then comes the "Rejected by eHarmony" stamp.
Waldorf says eHarmony's matching system is based on psychological research about heterosexual relationships. Because it doesn't have similar data on gay people, he says, the company isn't confident that it can offer successful matches to same-sex couples. "I'm not saying anything precludes us from going into the same-sex market in the future," he says, "but it's not a service we offer now."
Chemistry.com, on the other hand, matches people looking for same-sex relationships.
EHarmony also rejects anyone younger than 60 who's been married more than four times, as well as those who fail its "dysthymia scale," another proprietary metric designed to screen people who, the company says, might have "severe depression." (Dysthymia actually refers to a chronic but less severe form of depression.)
EHarmony's gay and psychological screening methods have generated criticism for years among online daters, says David Evans, who writes the Online Dating Insider blog (and has consulted for several dating companies, including Chemistry.com). "You hear it all the time: People say, 'I filled out this long questionnaire, and I got rejected for not being happy enough,' " Evans says. "You do this deep-think about your personality, and then it feels like you got smacked across the face."
Chemistry says its ads are designed simply to highlight differences between it and eHarmony. "We're saying, 'We're a very accepting, non-judgmental' " service, said Mandy Ginsberg, Chemistry's general manager. "Philosophically, we believe that anyone who's looking for a relationship is entitled to a relationship."
But eHarmony sees more than that in Chemistry's campaign. One TV spot features a young black man who says that he, too, was rejected -- which Waldorf says falsely implies that eHarmony rejects applicants based on race.
A Chemistry print ad shows another black model, with text that asks, "Was it my love for Buddha?" This is a particularly sensitive issue for eHarmony, which began by focusing on Christian singles. Waldorf says the "Buddha" reference could raise questions about whether eHarmony uses a religious test, which he denies.
Firing back, eHarmony accuses Chemistry's parent company of hypocrisy. It notes that IAC made formal overtures to buy eHarmony in 2004, but a deal never came off. Now, eHarmony says, IAC is running ads criticizing eHarmony's business practices. Says Waldorf, "When we got to know IAC, they were very admiring of our business model. I don't know what's changed."