When Eddie, a 28-year-old web developer in New York, matched with the “Parks & Rec” actress Aubrey Plaza on the dating app Tinder this week, he was cautiously thrilled. Her profile, after all, had a blue checkmark and said “verified.” Sure, her first photo also bore the name of her new movie, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” and the name said Tatiana, but he figured that didn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t really her—because the profile was verified.
He swiped right. His new match messaged him. “You swiped right,” she said. “I respect that. Know what’s #RespectableAF? Taking your date to Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, in theaters on July 8th.” It was an ad for the movie. Eddie (who did not wish to have his real name used, out of embarrassment) was disappointed, to say the least. “I felt a little bit taken,” he says. “I was really excited because I thought I had actually matched with her. But the cleverness made me laugh a little.”
Tinder has done this before, in various forms. It first started “bringing characters to life through Tinder,” in the company’s parlance, two years ago by giving a profile to Mindy Kaling’s TV character from “The Mindy Project," Mindy Lahiri. The company calls them “branded profile cards.” But giving these branded cards a “verified” checkmark is new. “We are always working to innovate in this space,” says a Tinder spokesperson.
It’s a bit of a slippery slope, and a good example of the way that in-app advertisements are getting more intrusive, and arguably manipulative. They are looking less and less like ads, in order to fool users into engaging with them. On Instagram recently, a company called Tasytt, which makes an add-on bot named Obie for the corporate chat tool Slack, ran a sponsored ad that teased, “Slack parodied in Silicon Valley episode, investors furious.” When you clicked “learn more,” it brought you to Tasytt’s website, to a post admitting that what looked like a news story was actually fake.
Last year, at the South By Southwest tech festival in Austin, Texas, many Tinder users matched with an attractive woman named Ava. When they did, Ava would message them and have a genuine conversation, asking personal questions. After a brief conversation, the account would reveal itself as an advertisement for the new movie “Ex Machina,” about a female robot. Adweek said the stunt was “pretty invasive, and some will call it spammy. If you think about it, it's only a step above porn bots.” The photographs on Ava’s account were of the actress Alicia Vikander. Tinder's branded profile cards are arranged through deals with the movie studio or television network. In the case of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, the actors gave their permission through Fox.
Tinder launched in 2012. The app was partly developed in the R&D lab of OkCupid, and was majority-owned by InterActiveCorp (IAC), the parent company of OkCupid, Match, and many other online dating properties. Last year, IAC spun off its dating portfolio into a separate, publicly traded entity called Match Group (MTCH). As Match Group has sought to monetize Tinder, the app has experimented with new, at times troubling, forms of advertisement.
Tinder has run branded profile cards in the past with the cast of the movie “Spy” and the characters from “Deadpool," among others. “If a user matches with a branded profile card, it’s clear [that it’s an ad] based on the promotional message sent to them after they swipe right,” Tinder tells Yahoo Finance. “In the case of ‘Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,’ the primary profile photo is also marked with the movie logo.” That has not been the case with all branded profiles, and the movie title alone wasn’t an automatic sign to Eddie, at least, that he was seeing an ad. Eddie wasn’t the only one: A Reddit user on the Tinder subreddit forum this week posted the Aubrey Plaza photo and asked, “What the hell is this? A verified advertisement profile?” (Yes, it is.) Another Reddit user commented, “Guaranteed way to make me not watch your movie.”
Is there a danger that Tinder is misleading consumers by using the same blue check for advertisements as it uses for authentic celebrities? That depends on whether there are any actual celebrities using Tinder for dating. Tinder introduced verified profiles one year ago, and says it verifies “notable public figures, celebrities and athletes.” It also considers all requests for verification on a case-by-case basis. And now it also verifies advertisement profiles. But the company won’t share whether any real celebrities are using Tinder. (It says the main purpose of its checkmark is to avoid “impostors,” similar to the blue checkmark on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.)
Last year a Fusion reporter, after swiping through 200-500 Tinder profiles every day for two weeks, saw “ZERO blue checkmarks on Tinder. Zero. Zilch. Nada.” The singer Hillary Duff used Tinder in a music video for her song “Sparks” last year, but it was a paid advertisement. UFC fighter Ronda Rousey tried Tinder using an alter ego, but found she was always recognized, and gave up. Mariah Carey briefly had a Match.com profile last year, but it was a paid promotion for her new music video.
Of course, apps need to monetize, and most have chosen to do so by advertising. (Other apps such as mobile games have done it by offering premium features for a fee.) Tinder has run promotions and partnerships with a wide range of corporations and organizations, such as Audi and organ donorship. It won’t share how much ad revenue it has generated from such deals.
Don’t forget to take your Tinder date to see “Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates,” in theaters on July 8.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.