Why is the Daily Mail promoting a site that appears to be little more than an escort agency?

As the Daily Mail celebrates success in their online porn campaign, Michael Marshall explores the PR influence behind their headlines.

Sun, sea and sex: More than 40% of women under 30 admit to having one-night stands on holiday.

This was the important sociological research covered in the Daily Mail on 18 June last year, outlining the effect a summer getaway can have on the female population of our nation.

"The poll, which explored the nation's sexual habits, found that holidaymakers are more likely to have casual sex abroad than when they are at home."

The findings were clear: a woman on holiday is far more likely to sleep with someone she doesn't know than she would be if she were at home. What may not have been apparent to the casual observer, however, is that this research came not from a respected sociological study, but instead formed part of a marketing campaign for a "travel dating website".

"The findings were revealed in a poll for dating website MissTravel.com, which asked its 30,000 female British members ten questions about their sexual habits during their summer holidays."

For the unacquainted, MissTravel.com's "travel dating" model is rather simple: members join as either a "Generous" member, or an "Attractive" member. If you're a wealthy, generous man looking for a "miss" to take on holiday, MissTravel.com will pair you with your ideal travel date – an attractive young woman looking for a free holiday. And while the site does allow for the generous woman and attractive man, it’s little more than tokenistic – as a glance at the site’s homepage will confirm. Even the logo displays a sassy silhouette in tottering heels. The implications are quite apparent.

Given the source of the data, the nature of the findings becomes highly questionable – although a sample of 30,000 is very large (if, indeed, all purported 30,000 female members took part in the survey, which is far from clear), that the sample included only women who had signed up to a site pairing them with strangers for free a holiday makes extrapolation of the results to the wider British population a totally meaningless exercise. It’s fair to say members of MissTravel.com don’t necessarily represent society as a whole.

To anyone well-versed in the nature of PR, the signs in the Daily Mail article were clear - not least in the handy quote from the dating website's founder:

"Commenting on the findings CEO Brandon Wade, said: 'It is clear that women become much more sexually liberated when they are out of their comfort zone

'Once they get into their bikini or travel to an exciting new city our members' thoughts turn to sex."

The message, then, borders on explicit: "if you take a girl away on holiday, you're far more likely to get laid - and we have the perfect site for you". In terms of business model, it's bears a reasonable resemblance to an escort agency. In that respect, it's a perfect fit for CEO Brandon Wade - founder of two other "themed dating" websites: SeekingArrangements.com (describing itself as "The elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutually beneficial relationships", replete with secretive, shushing women and smug, satisfied businessmen), and Whatsyourprice.com (where generous members bid to secure dates with attractive members, in a business model most frequently witnessed at your local livestock auction).

Say what you like about Brandon Wade, but when he finds a formula, he sticks with it. What may be slightly surprising, however, is how willing the Daily Mail were to print promotional material for a site which appears to be little more than an escort agency. The Mail, lest we forget, are the newspaper spearheading the campaign to introduce a nationwide block on pornographic images – a campaign they’ve deemed a success after gaining the attention of David Cameron.

What’s more, the article in June was by no means the only article published in the Mail to promote Wade’s escort services. Take, for example, from 15 November:

“Ten ways to leave your lover: 'I'm not ready for commitment' is the line used most by women when dumping their partner, while men go for 'it's just not working'

... Dating site SeekingArrangement.com asked 1,000 of its male and female members why and how they would dump a partner.

Going against the stereotype of the commitment-phobe male, the most popular line used by women in ending a relationship is: 'I’m not ready for commitment yet.'...

... Interestingly, money – and the earning power of their partner – is far more important to a woman than a man.”

With the implication that there are an abundance of women for whom relationships and commitment matter less than money and fun, it isn’t hard to see why this article was released by Wade’s "Sugar Daddy Dating" site.

In fact, Wade’s PR machine has found an astonishingly fertile home in the Mail Online – including the revelation that Carlisle is the most promiscuous city in Europe (9 October), women officially get old at 28 (17 October), single women in their twenties are pining for the exes (8 October) and that single women routinely sleep with their ex while looking for a new partner (30 October).

In all, between January and November, there were no fewer than 29 stories in the Daily Mail highlighting dating services run by Brandon Wade – an average in excess of one per fortnight. Articles ranged from faux condemnation (“I love to be treated like a princess: Meet the young women seeking sugar daddies online as disturbing trend hits UK” – 22 May), to the bandwagon-jumping (“Fifty Shades Of Grey effect turns British bedrooms red hot as women copy scenes from smash-hit 'mummy porn' book” – 3 July), to the obscure (“It started with a kiss... How use of Xs in texts and emails spark more than HALF of office affairs” – 23 August), to the outright blatant (“'They give me sex, I give them money': Meet the real-life Christian Grey entering into 'mutually beneficial contracts' with students” – 23 November).

Fortunately, at least, even the Daily Mail has limits. In July 2012, seeking to capitalise on an event from the headlines in order to publicise his "dating auction" site WhatsYourPrice.com, Wade released the following press release:

In the event of a tragedy like the Dark Knight Massacre, who would you want by your side on a first date?

According to the results of the survey... men who make between $80,000 to $150,000 per year are more likely to take a bullet for you on a first date.

Thankfully, not even the Daily Mail were willing to run with this article. However, for a newspaper so publicly committed to preserving morality, the Daily Mail would be wise to be more discerning in its choice of bedfellows.

Michael Marshall, Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, regularly writes and lectures on the role of PR in the tabloid news. He tweets as @MrMMarsh

The website for MissTravel.com.
Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue