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Your dating app is not your friend

A Bumble campaign has caused a widespread backlash. Why is anyone surprised?

By Sarah Manavis

In the 2010s, brands increasingly sold the public a social message. You couldn’t just sell soap – you had to sell personal hygiene products that encouraged society to accept people of all sizes. You couldn’t just sell soda – you had to sell soda that promoted peace between socially opposing groups. Even if the most cynical and toxic brands painted themselves as having a warm, human sensibility and strong political values. For some, such marketing was visibly self-serving and insincere. Others believed that companies genuinely cared about improving the world, and trusted that they were willing to sacrifice profits in order to make it a better place for their customers.

Today, most consumers have wised up to the shallowness of such corporate branding. This month, the dating app Bumble experienced a mass backlash for running an advertising campaign that mocked women who have quit the apps and sworn off dating entirely. “A vow of celibacy is not the answer,” one advertisement read. Another: “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun”.

The ads were criticised for being patronising to women, and shaming them for avoiding a demoralising dating scene (a scene that apps such as Bumble have had an active role in creating). The company apologised in a statement on social media. “For years Bumble has passionately stood up for women and marginalised communities, and their right to fully exercise personal choice,” it read. “We didn’t live up to these values with this campaign.” It added that it would offer ad space to a domestic-violence charity and would donate money to similar causes.

Beyond being tone deaf, the campaign sparked particular ire because of Bumble’s branding. The app has long marketed itself as a “feminist” dating app, prioritising its female customer base and claiming to empower women in the world of heterosexual dating. When it entered the market in 2014 – amid an app scene synonymous with hook-ups and a growing pop-feminism movement – it was lauded for its USP of being the first dating platform where only women could start a conversation with their male matches, using the tagline “Women make the first move”.

Two years later, the company launched a friendship-dating tool – Bumble BFF – which was also marketed towards women, and emphasised the company’s ethos of female empowerment. This political positioning made the patronising anti-celibacy campaign, which told women to capitulate to grim modern dating culture, especially jarring.

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The Bumble campaign was audacious. But should anyone be surprised? Like many enterprises from the 2010s lightly glossed as feminist, Bumble has, in recent years, showed signs of decline. After a successful IPO in 2021, Bumble’s share prices have dropped by around 85 per cent, while it and other dating apps have struggled to engage a younger generation of users with paid subscriptions. In February it announced plans to lay off 30 per cent of its staff. And at the end of April, just before this ad campaign ran, the company quietly dropped its only defining trait: now, making it optional to require that women be the first to message, allowing men to make the initial move, just like on other dating apps.

Bumble’s anti-celibacy episode reveals a fundamental truth about tech companies that sell themselves as a kind of social good: the apps that claim to exist to better our lives aren’t altruistic. These are not charitable institutions – they’re data-driven, profit-chasing corporations. This applies to all manner of companies, not just dating apps. The fitness apps that push body positivity but send aggressive messages if you take a break from using them. The period trackers – which also pitch themselves as championing female empowerment – that are passing on personal data to law enforcement in abortion trials. The trend is the same regardless of the brand’s original purpose – they are quick to drop or downgrade their defining ethos when there are greater profits to be had.

It’s understandable that some were outraged by Bumble’s campaign. But it’s naive to think these political messages were ever anything more than a marketing strategy. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “benevolent” brand – the very concept is oxymoronic. None of these companies hold their “values” as sacred. They are merely designed to yield results – not for their customers, but for corporate spreadsheets.

[See also: Are girls “growing up too fast” online?]

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