(COLUMBIA, S.C.) — Residents of Columbia, S.C., were greeted Tuesday with a new billboard advertising a dating website for married people, which featured an image of former South Carolina governor and admitted philanderer Mark Sanford.
The ad, spread across two stacked billboards, reads, “Next time use… AshleyMadison.com to find your ‘running mate.'” Emblazoned in the ad is an image of Sanford, who is attempting to revive his political career with a bid for South Carolina’s vacant 1st Congressional District seat. A special election is set for May 7.
Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman told ABC News that the controversial ad, created by him and his internal team, is meant as social commentary. He sees his campaign as a way to show that those who cheat on their spouses should not be made into pariahs.
“We are trying to get people to distinguish between capability, and what goes on in bedroom,” Biderman said. “There are few voices speaking on behalf of those who are unfaithful. Once we found out [Sanford] was back in business, that’s the story we want to attach ourselves to. We believe careers shouldn’t be lost because you choose not to sustain monogamy.”
Sanford made headlines in 2009 when it was revealed that instead of hiking the Appalachian Trail, as he had told staffers, he was in Buenos Aires with a woman who was not his wife. He later became engaged to her, after divorcing his wife, Jenny, and paid the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina, $70,000.
Sanford’s office did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment on the ad.
Sanford’s is not the first story of infidelity that Ashley Madison has attached itself to. In the past, the company, which was created in Canada in 2002 and came to the U.S. in 2007, has winked at potential customers by hinting at the affairs of former President Bill Clinton, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Biderman sees the campaigns as successful.
“We thought this would be digested and talked about locally,” he said. “But you see new membership that you didn’t expect…sometimes we will be cemented further in the folklore of political unfaithfulness — though the tail effect may not be there the next day.”
For Biderman, part of the strategy of political ads is a means to further his brand as “the Kleenex of cheating.” This effort at creating a household name out of his company hit a snag in 2009 when NBC banned an Ashley Madison ad from appearing during the Super Bowl. But Biderman was undeterred.
“If the NFL rejects an ad, we still find a way,” he said. “American society is not there yet. Despite the fact that we stopped painting people with scarlet letters a long time ago. My role is to keep pushing this forward, so it becomes digestible.”
As for Sanford’s bid for a comeback, Biderman is rooting for him.
“I want him to win very badly. If I could find a way to help him accomplish that … It would be a testament for people to evaluate people on their skill set,” he said. “If you took the unfaithful out of the equation, we would have very unsuccessful society.”
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