“If you suggest we have anything to do with sex, we’ll sue you!” says “COUGAR” dating website

Last month I reported on the PR piece published in the Daily Mail which claimed a ‘shock’ finding that men find Mary Berry attractive. You might remember it, but it’s unlikely, as the blog has thus far only been read by 33 people. More on that in a bit, but here’s the gist of the blog:

Mary Berry is voted the older woman men would most like to date – and beats Carol Vorderman, Nigella Lawson and Pippa Middleton (who’s just 31)

Chef Mary Berry has been crowned top celebrity cougar, with the Great British Bake Off judge beating off stiff competition from other mature women in showbiz.

The 80-year-old led the list with Davina McCall, 47, coming second, Carol Vorderman, 54, third and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, 55, in fourth place.

Source: Daily Mail, 28th August, 2015

toyboy-28082015-mailIt’ll be no surprise to you that this article is PR for a company called Toyboy Warehouse, the self-described (again, more on that later) Cougar Dating website. I haven’t got the original research, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it consisted of an online poll – conducted either on their website or via a market research company – which gave a few thousand men a list of women’s names and asked them to rate how attractive they were.

This is an important point on the methodology, as it’s almost certain that it wasn’t a free choice where men (or women – lesbians can presumably also be ‘Cougars’ I suppose, especially when ‘Cougar’ apparently has little to do with sex at all MORE ON THAT LATER) could suggest any names themselves. The list of names is set ahead of time, which makes it much easier to write the ‘research’ up into a press release, because you’ve built the hooks right into it. This also could explain, for example, why they included Pippa Middleton on the list of ‘Cougars’, despite her being barely over 30. Hooks galore.

Still, as with many of the articles on this site, the story came and went with very little fuss and not a huge readership (which is fine, because it’s more about the volume of stories than any individual story, that’s the point I’m making and anyway readership numbers are over-rated, it’s quality not quantity and I love every one of you for the special snowflake that you are). At least, I thought there was very little fuss, but then on September 7th someone from Toyboy Warehouse got in touch:

Hi Michael,

How are you? I just read your reaction to our Mary Berry Poll in the article: “People want to sleep with older women!” says ‘cougar dating site’ – (http://badpr.co.uk/2015/09/04/people-want-to-sleep-with-older-women-says-cougar-dating-site/)

I did enjoy reading it and glad to see you engaged with our content. It’s all good humour except for the part where you describe us as follows:

Toyboy Warehouse, as you can probably guess, is a ‘cougar dating’ website, where older women can find younger men for sex. 

For many it’s a site where people find long-term partners, get married, have kids etc., so please remove the part about it being a site for ‘sex’. I’d very much appreciate this.

Best wishes,
D****

As you can imagine, I was delighted that D**** was happy to see me engaging with the content. I love it when my content engagement is praised. Still, I was quite busy – I was travelling out of the country and had a wedding to plan, so responding to the email wasn’t my top priority. A few weeks went by, and I returned from my honeymoon on October 1st to a follow-up from Toyboy Warehouse:

Hi Michael,

Hope you’re well, I’m not sure if you received my last email regarding the blog you posted about ToyboyWarehouse.com.

Just in case this did not reach you, I would like to reiterate that while we don’t mind good humour around our site and the content relating to it, the description you published of our site is defamatory so please adjust the part where you describe Toyboy Warehouse as a ‘cougar dating website, where older women can find younger men for sex’, otherwise I will need to report it.

Kind regards,
D****

I was very relieved to know the good people of Toyboy Warehouse, the self-described Cougar Dating website, don’t mind good humour around their site and their content. That came as a huge relief to me. Less of a relief, however, was the threat to sue me for defamation for suggesting their COUGAR dating website might have a degree of sexualisation. For context, this is what their Twitter page looks like:

toyboy-twitter

There’s clearly nothing steamy or sexualised in that soft-focus background picture – it says “marriage and kids” way more than it says “sex”, obviously. Also, I can’t help but notice how not-much-older the soft-focus model lady looks than the soft-focus model man. That part of Toyboy Warehouse’s “Love and Romance for older women” USP really comes through well in their brand identity here.

As you can imagine, I didn’t think my blog post was defamatory – but to be clear, it is an accusation I take very seriously, as it is vitally important that criticisms are made fairly and with good reason. I have no intention of being unfair to anyone, and I have no intention to defame anyone. Equally, I take very seriously any potential attempt to silence genuine criticism with legal threats where those legal threats might have no basis, so I was keen to highlight what I felt was my position on the matter to explore whether it was fair for D**** to accuse me of having been defamatory. I responded on October 5th, outlining my feelings:

Dear D****

Thank you for engaging with the content of my site. I am particularly interested in your last email, specifically where you allege that I have been defamatory in the following line of my blog:

Toyboy Warehouse, as you can probably guess, is a ‘cougar dating’ website, where older women can find younger men for sex.

I take this allegation very seriously, as not only is libel is a very serious issue, but just as serious is the issue of using threats of libel action to quieten legitimate criticism. With that in mind, I am willing to be reasonable, and I will make a change to my blog if you can explain to me in what way you believe I have been libelous. I would also point you to the Defamation Act 2013’s requirement for serious harm to be proven before defamation can be ruled:

Since 1 January 2014, a statement will not be defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. Where a claimant is a body that trades for profit, harm is not serious unless it has caused or is likely to cause serious financial loss.

As a coda to the above, I’ll highlight to you that the blog post you cite has been viewed 33 times. Several of which, I’d assume, are likely to have been your own visits to the site.

However, I’m happy to outline why I believe I have not been defamatory, if it helps contextualise things. I infer from your allegation that you believe a ‘cougar dating’ website (as your own PR appears to describe you) is unfairly characterised as being related to sexual relations between ‘older’ women and ‘younger’ men.  To this, I’d make two points:

Firstly, my blog post does not state that the site cannot be used for finding long-term partners, marriages, kids or anything else – I state it’s a site where “older women can find younger men for sex”. I imagine they can; indeed, if you’re suggesting older women cannot find a younger sexual partner on your site, it’s a message that’s missing from your advertising.

Secondly, and more substantially, the term ‘cougar’ (again, one you yourselves have used in your PR) is a well-known slang term, and one with a clear meaning. Take the Wikipedia definition:

Cougar is a slang term that refers to a woman who seeks sexual relations with considerably younger men. ABC News states that these women pursue sexual relations with people more than eight years younger than they are, while The New York Times states that the women are over the age of 40 and aggressively pursue sexual relations with men in their 20s or 30s. However, the term can also refer to any female who has a male partner much younger than herself, regardless of age or age difference.

Or perhaps the Urban Dictionary definition, which offers a variety of iterations of the same sexual theme. Equally, less comic-themed sources carry the same sexual connotation. In fact, while it could be argued that the term ‘cougar’ could be used in a non-sexual way, the clear preponderant inference is one which has a predominant sexual intention.

It seems clear from your sexualised homepage image, and the sexualised nature of the PR which lies at the heart of the Daily Mail story, that this sexual meaning is not one you’ve aimed to avoid. Indeed, even the MD of your company refers to ‘The Cougar’ and the sexual appeal of older women:

Owner Mike Bandar said: ‘We definitely weren’t expecting Berry to win the top spot but why shouldn’t she? She’s an older woman loved by millions. The Cougar is massive at the moment, the idea that older women want to date a young toyboy is accepted and even encouraged. Women such as Carol Vorderman, Davina McCall and Delia Smith are seen as sexy, intelligent and desirable to men half their age.’

Given the above, I believe it’s reasonable and not out of step with the PR story I’m commentating on to say that the site can be used for women to find younger men to have sex with. But I am willing to make an amend to the article if you are able to refute my reading of it convincingly.

I think my criticism or critique is fair, and that companies engaging in the PR tactics I investigate in my work ought not to be above criticism for doing so – I care about ethical PR and about quality journalism, and I firmly believe PR stories similar to that of yours I have written about are detrimental to both the PR industry and the journalism profession.

Kind regards,
Michael

As I hope is clear from my response, I genuinely want to be reasonable about this – despite the threats to sue me for defamation over what I’d written, I was open to changing my blog post and critique if Toyboy Warehouse were able to adequately explain why they feel my suggestion that their site could be used for sex goes beyond their own suggestion in their PR that the site is for ‘Cougars’, and all that that entails. On October 6th, I got the following response:

Hi Michael,

Hope you’re well,

Whether you have only received 33 views to date is a matter of your say so. The issue remains as the potential audience is a lot larger and the point of publishing content on the internet is to send traffic to it. Or do you guarantee progressively fewer readers of your blog?

You are asking me to consider your commitment to ethical PR and quality journalism, I ask you to consider our commitment to protect a brand which represents thousands of members, many of which would never join a sex site.

Please remove the line that says “older women can find younger men for sex” as the implication made by that statement is clear.

Best wishes,
D****

As you can imagine, I’m unconvinced that this response is the substantive and reasoned explanation and engagement I asked for. A few hours later, I responded to highlight this:

Dear D****

I don’t feel you’ve addressed the issues raised in my last mail. Do you acknowledge the Defamation Act 2013’s requirement to prove financial loss in defamation cases? Or are you suggesting that my blog has resulted in cancellations or lost members? That’s a very bold claim to make; without it, you run the risk of appearing to use the libel laws to quell legitimate criticism, which is something people feel quite strongly about. Please clarify your position on this.

With regards to brand protection, your position appears to be that your linking your brand to a word with a very clear and sexualised meaning (“cougar”) is not in any way damaging for you to do to your brand, but my writing a blog which highlights the literal definition of the word you use in your PR is somehow defamatory. Having worked in digital and content marketing for a decade and lectured on PR from both a consultant side and a media criticism side, I’d suggest that a good brand protection strategy is to not publish PR which you consider to contain material which would be defamatory if repeated by someone else. That your members might be put off by descriptions of your service as having a sexual connotation should be part of your consideration when creating PR campaigns, or when hiring PR agencies and/or market research companies to get your brand headlines. Again, it was your PR which described your site as being a ‘cougar dating’ site – I find it impossible to believe that at no point in using that term on your site, in your PR and in your social media did anyone at your company try to find out what the term literally means. You simply have to have been aware of it.

I’ll reiterate, I’m not trying to be unreasonable here, but I don’t appreciate attempts to bully me into retracting criticism which I think can be justified as a reading of the terminology in your own PR.

Kind regards,
Michael

All of this may seem very trivial – after all, updating the original blogpost to comply with the demands of Toyboy Warehouse would literally have amounted to removing two words (“for sex”) – but I think there is a larger point to be made here. Firstly, jumping quickly to threats of legal action aren’t helpful in convincing reasonable critics to reconsider their position. Granted, I hadn’t rushed to engage with the initial request, but nevertheless jumping to legal threats very quickly starts to resemble bullying.

Secondly, and more significantly, there is an inherent brand trade-off in engaging with cheap titillating PR, and this is something companies have to be aware of. Clearly, the original PR poll, the article in the Daily Mail and indeed the general brand image contains a frisson of sexualised content. In fact, in an interview in September 2014, the MD Mike Bandar even acknowledged this:

Unlike a lot of the niche sites, Toyboy Warehouse is fun, cheeky and provocative…

Perhaps more significantly, the very next line from Mike demonstrates that he and the company are well-aware of the sexualised nature of the word ‘Cougar’ – the very point I made in my initial criticism:

…its brand is predominantly female-focused and had originally established itself as the “anti-cougar” – appealing to the thousands of older women who like younger men, but don’t associate with the overly-sexualised “cougar” title.

Clearly, Toyboy Warehouse and their MD Mike Bandar know precisely that the term ‘Cougar’ has an unambiguous sexual connotation, yet their own PR uses the term freely, in order to grab headlines and column inches in a national newspaper. However, if that’s the PR game you’re deciding to play, to threaten to sue people who point it out seems disingenuous, and bordering on bullying and censorship.

I have no doubt that Toyboy Warehouse are concerned about brand protection, but it’s important for companies to realise that brand protection begins at home. Cheap, titillating headline-grabs come at a price, and that price is often the reputation you’re trying to build. Threatening to sue critics who acknowledge this price does nothing to protect that reputation.