A billboard ad on a London Underground platform for the online dating service, eHarmony, seen on 4 July 2017, featured the headline claim "Step aside, fate. It's time science had a go at love". Further text stated "Imagine being able to stack the odds of finding lasting love entirely in your favour. eHarmony's scientifically proven matching system decodes the mystery of compatibility and chemistry so you don't have to. Why leave the most important search of your life to chance?. Try something different today. Join eharmony.co.uk".
The complainant, who believed that it was not possible to hold scientific proof about a dating system, challenged whether the ad was misleading.
eHarmony UK Ltd t/a eHarmony said that the definition of science was something that was "based on or characterised by the methods or principles of science". They said that the ad did not make any specific claims except that their matching system was scientific and could therefore provide an advantage in finding a compatible partner over a purely chance-based system or meeting. The ad did not include any comparisons to other dating websites and did not claim that the service had a better success rate than any other service. They believed that consumers would interpret the ad to mean that the scientific approach eHarmony used could potentially work for them, but did not believe that consumers would interpret the ad to mean that it would guarantee they would find lasting love or make connections.
eHarmony explained that they used a compatibility matching algorithm to match users on their website. They required users to complete lengthy relationship questionnaires to determine their personality traits, values, interests and other factors. Users were then matched to other individuals whose responses complemented their own preferences and matched a specific percentage of a list of personality factors that eHarmony determined to be vital in successfully matching people.
eHarmony explained that their algorithm was based on data collected from more than 50,000 married couples in 23 different countries, which looked at their core personality traits and key values. Their research resulted in statistical models which were associated with cut-off thresholds for scores that indicated a high probability of successful relationships if married. They said the algorithm was based on scientific theories in the relationship literature of assortative mating.
eHarmony submitted a granted patent for their algorithm. They also provided a copy of two published studies which reported higher levels of martial satisfaction for couples who met through eHarmony than any other offline or online sources. One of the studies also reported that in the US more couples in the sample had met on eHarmony than any other dating website, and that those couples were less likely to break-up than couples who met through other online or offline sources.
The ASA considered that consumers were likely to appreciate that the advertised dating website would not be able to guarantee that they would be able to find lasting love. However, we considered that consumers would interpret the claim "scientifically proven matching system" to mean that scientific studies had demonstrated that the website offered users a significantly greater chance of finding lasting love than what could be achieved if they didn't use the service.
We understood that eHarmony used an algorithm that matched users with similar personality traits, values and interests to themselves based on questionnaire results. eHarmony submitted a published study which reported the findings of a questionnaire on a representative sample of 19,131 married respondents in the US. We noted the largest number of respondents who met through online dating had met on eHarmony; however, the figure was not higher than other general online and offline sources such as respondents who had met through online social networks, at work, through friends or in a bar/club. In any case, we considered that the number of couples in one sample who had met through eHarmony would not in itself constitute proof that the website provided a greater chance of finding lasting love. We also noted that while the website had a lower percentage of marital break-ups than other dating websites, it had a higher percentage of marital break-ups compared to those who had met through email, online communities and through messages on blogs.
The study had further asked respondents a series of structured questions relating to their marital satisfaction, with respondents providing answers on a scale of one to seven. We acknowledged that the mean marital satisfaction score was highest for couples who had met on eHarmony than any other online or offline source. However, the study had reported that the mean score for eHarmony was below the level of statistical significance.
eHarmony referred us to a second study which conducted a similar questionnaire and found that couples who had met through eHarmony had a significantly higher marital quality compared to couples who had met offline. However, we understood that the sample of eHarmony couples was taken from a pool of couples who had proactively informed eHarmony of their engagement/marriage after eHarmony had encouraged and incentivised couples who met through their website to do so. Therefore, the sample of eHarmony couples was not a random or representative sample, but were instead taken from a group of self-selecting couples who were more likely to report positively on their marital satisfaction than a random or representative sample.
We further considered that both studies did not reveal anything about the percentage of the overall users of eHarmony who had found lasting love after using the website compared to other sources. Therefore, neither study provided insight into the likelihood of the website finding users lasting love compared to users who did not use the service.
Because the evidence provided by eHarmony did not demonstrate that their matching system offered users a significantly greater chance of finding lasting love than what could be achieved if they didn't use the service, we concluded that the claim "scientifically proven matching system" was misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.11 3.11 Marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product. (Exaggeration).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told eHarmony to remove the claim "scientifically proven matching system" and not to use similar claims with the same meaning, unless they had adequate evidence that their website offered users a significantly greater chance of finding lasting love than what could be achieved if they didn't use the service.