Photo by Flickr user kaybee07

Zoadona Clerico spread baby's breath, her boyfriend's favorite flower, across their bed. She wrapped a platinum wedding band in red paper. And when he returned home that December day, she proposed.

Clerico, 28, has since wondered how to pay for the ceremony. The couple would need to save for at least two years, she figured.

Or they could just apply to get their dream wedding for free.

Clerico and her fiance were among the many engaged couples who planned to take up SwanLuv on its uniquely cynical offer: The Seattle tech startup said it would pay up to $10,000 for your wedding, on the condition that, if the union crumbles in divorce, you and your ex would return the money -- with interest.

It seemed an ideal plan for young couples convinced of their everlasting love, a pitch that won global media coverage. It was also too good to be true.

On Monday, fresh off a Valentine’s Day-themed "Today" show plug, SwanLuv announced that, actually, no — it would not pay for a single ceremony. Instead, it would let your friends and relatives pay for it, providing a crowdfunding platform similar to GoFundMe (except that, upon divorce, users would have to return the web donations).

The company's sudden change broke some hearts.

"The extremely false advertising -- it crushed dreams for a lot of people," Clerico said. "I am so very sorry that we all got strung along together."

Another aspiring bride, who said she planned to use the money to fly her mother and siblings to her wedding, left a tearful message to the company on YouTube: "There's a lot of people, including me, who really got their hopes up for their dream wedding. ... It's immoral. How could you do that?"

In the announcement, Swanluv's founder, Scott Avy, described the change as simply “adjusting our funding platform.” 

Avy declined to be interviewed. In an email to The Washington Post, he said that interest in the service had simply climbed too high.

“Due to overwhelming demand (nearly two billion dollars at $10,000 per couple) and unanticipated legal regulations/restrictions in the lending space, rather than pull out, we came up with a tool we believe still helps couples with their wedding financing,” he wrote.

In December, when Swanluv's website went live, it looked like this:


On Monday, users noticed dramatic edits:


By Tuesday, Swanluv’s website had disappeared altogether. Confused users encountered a two-word farewell: Service Unavailable. Outrage poured onto the company’s Facebook page, which had collected more than 20,000 likes since its launch in December.

“They should be ashamed of giving couples hope and dashing them to pieces. Hope this company goes down the tubes.”

“I only have 4 months left until the wedding and we can't afford ANYTHING.”

"This was my last ditch effort to maybe not have to call the whole thing off. I'm surely not begging my family for money."

In an interview with The Post in December, Avy said Swanluv’s concept was simple: Someone’s break-up would fund someone else’s future nuptials. He planned to also sell advertisements, although he refused to specify what kind or to whom. Nor would he say if any investors had backed the company.

He did mention, though, the “hundreds of emails” he’d received from people, happy for the chance to throw their dream wedding, “telling me how meaningful this is.” The sentiment echoed in articles and television segments across the globe. (This reporter discussed the story on New Zealand radio.)

Now those once-hopeful clients are describing Avy's idea differently: "false advertising," "bait and switch," "a lie."

David Bernstein, a partner with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, said the couples have limited legal recourse: “It’s more of a consumer protection issue. Consumers have been wooed into using this service and now Swanluv is not following through.”

State attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission sometimes investigate such business conduct. But it's not likely in this case, Bernstein said, since no one paid Swanluv or signed a contract. In the eyes of the law, disappointment isn’t necessarily punishable.

“It would be unrealistic to expect that a company could possibly pay that many people that kind of money," he said.

Jeff Reid, founding director of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, said rapid failure in the startup world isn't unusual. Swanluv could have launched with good intentions — and collapsed before it could deliver on the promises.

Entrepreneurs, who may lack confidence or capital, use the phrase: Fake it 'til you make it.  Reid said some get carried away.

"There’s a line you don't want to cross," he said, "in terms of over-promising."

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