Relationships, the saying goes, are hard. Many couples find their sex drives are mismatched over time, a problem that sex therapists often suggest fixing by working on communication. The Spinner, launched in April of this year, offers a different route to marital bliss — the online service encourages dissatisfied husbands to skip all that messy relationship effort and instead try to manipulate their wives on a subconscious level, in a way only possible in the age of the Internet.
For the bargain price of $29, husbands are sent an innocuous link that they, in turn, send via email or text message to their “target.” It can be accessed on a computer or mobile device and looks like any other hyperlink to an article, joke or video. Once she clicks on this link, a small piece of code is dropped on and then through browser cookies, she will be fed a slow drip of content chosen for her with the express motive of encouraging her to initiate sex.
The content presented appears as natural looking links which lead her to existing articles on the web. Once she clicks on the ads she will be brought to real sites like Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, or any other site chosen by the content team. The articles are real, but the headlines and descriptions have been changed by The Spinner team — consisting of psychologists from an unnamed U.S. university — and specifically crafted to encourage women to have more sex. Over the course of the prepaid run of ads she may well see these headlines, chosen for her — “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” and “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear.” Once signed up to the basic package husbands can expect their wife to be presented with 10 different articles, 180 times over a three-month period. As Spinner’s marketing copy chillingly states, “Let the brainwashing begin.”
Of course, this isn’t really new technology. Most of us have already experienced “retargeting” through social media ads. You might be looking to book a hotel in Italy, leave the site and then find when you log in to your social media accounts that Italian hotels begin to pop up in your feed. Big companies employ this advertising strategy to sell their products. It’s a popular marketing tactic that keeps consumers thinking about a specific product, even after they have left the original site.
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The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife.
However, these types of manipulative marketing techniques can feel unethical even when conducted by large corporations. Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have used similar data mining activities, just one of their transgressions, which also included data privacy breeches and led to the company’s bankruptcy.
Far from distancing themselves from that mess, Elliot Shefler, vice president of media and social at The Spinner, actively makes the connection, saying that his service is like Cambridge Analytica for couples. “We are giving these abilities to the common man,” he tells Rolling Stone. “If you wanted to do this campaign two years ago you had to go to a big agency that had connections with public relations and make a campaign to target someone and now you just register, and you can have your own PR campaign for $29. The agency model was here for many years but now we don’t need the agency.”
The Spinner site also promotes other products — including a dubious-sounding “Get a Dog” message that children are supposedly using to encourage their parents to get them a pet — although the “Initiate Sex” package is far and away their most popular package.
Custom packages are also available giving people the ability to attempt to influence the behavior of others in a variety of ways, from food choices, to quitting smoking, to career changes.
Just like Cambridge Analytica, they maintain that their methods are legal despite serious ethical concerns, although Shefler admits that ethically, “It’s a gray area.”
The heart of the operation is the curated content. Avi Atias, Spinnner’s head of content, oversees the selection of existing digital content by analyzing the sites the “target” visits to create a profile of her user type. From that information, they craft the exact type of headlines to pique her interest. “[For a] young woman, we would use a short headline, or for an older woman a longer headline. And for a conservative woman we show how to strengthen the marriage life,” he says.
Atias says that the perfect headline is chosen from a plethora of available consumer information. “We can understand demographic and geographic information, gender, religion, psychographic data — like what she purchases and what car she drives — [to] target the specific content that we want to the user,” he says.
Both Shefler and Atias insist that there are no moral or ethical reasons why they shouldn’t use these marketing techniques, citing that the fact that big companies also operate in this way proves it is an acceptable strategy.
Atias suggests that the original sites and the writers who produced those articles should be pleased for the extra web traffic. However J. Parker, a Christian intimacy author and speaker, was alarmed to hear that her article “40 Ways to Initiate Sex with Your Husband,” which appeared on HotHolyHumorous.com, was used by The Spinner. “My resources certainly can help increase the frequency of lovemaking in marriage, but the primary intent is to build trust, pleasure and intimacy,” she says. “Manipulation to selfishly accomplish your own sex goals undermines that tenet.”
She suggests that, aside from any ethical questions, this approach probably wouldn’t even work – dishonesty doesn’t contribute to a happy healthy marriage. “I don’t promote sex just for the sake of having sex, but rather as one way to deepen the bond of marriage,” she says.
“If I was a wife who discovered her husband had used this service, that bond would be weakened and my trust broken.”
Although the Spinner and other companies are free to share links to previously published articles, she is also concerned that the use of her work could suggest her endorsement of the product. “I am frustrated to think that some wife out there might believe I was involved in this misuse of my site when I heartily disapprove of this practice,” she says.
Even the site’s premise — that married women are generally disinterested in sex and that their husbands need to trick them into being intimate — comes off as extremely problematic. If couples are experiencing differing libidos, it could be due to a range of medical or emotional reasons that need exploring. Kryss Shane, a sex and relationship expert, says that being resentful about your partner’s lack of sexual interest can make the problem worse. Instead, she says being a more considerate partner in non-sexual ways can help to create opportunities for sex.
“Try doing things for your partner to show them you love them,” says Shane. “Do the house chores they hate or draw them a bath. Remember, your goal is not to make them feel coerced into sex but to show them you love and cherish them. Over time, showing you care will likely cause them to want to be more intimate more often.”
Though the Spinner launched in April, it currently has less than 500 customers — Elliot Shefler proudly states that his company doesn’t have any competition, perhaps due to the controversial nature of this very young application. Shefler admits that he can see why the concept has attracted some negative reactions and that it has the potential to be misused, “You can use this product to do negative things or positive things it depends on your position,” he says. “The ‘Initiate Sex’ package is controversial, this is the first package we chose to promote in public because we know it has viral potential.”