Alistair Cartwright explores the imagery of dating adverts on the underground, how they affect us and the alienation they encourage

Dating AdvertMaybe one reason why love is such a powerful idea is that it promises intimacy in a world of alienation. You can tell as much by looking at the posters advertising dating agencies on the London Underground.

The dating industry boom of the last decade – from 1 million online personals in 2000, to 32 million logging on to dating websites every month in 2012, and 9 million registered users in 2014 – is mainly an online phenomenon, but the impact of these adverts in public space is heightened by the lonely yet familiar experience of London transport: 40 people in a carriage, close enough that every traveller is touching their neighbour, but never speaking. At least one set of adverts plays on this theme explicitly. An early Lovestruck campaign (the posters have changed several times in the last couple of years) tells the commuter that ‘your perfect girl could be sitting right under this ad’. And then the strapline: ‘we’re just here in case she isn’t’.

Any look at representations of love or sex, or advertising generally for that matter, will very quickly run into the problem of society’s oppression of women. We can already make it out in the example just given: the mildly sexist use of the diminutive. Not to mention the fact that none of the adverts represent gay men or women. Sex sells, and usually this means men objectifying women.

But what’s strange about the dating ads is how they largely avoid the problem of objectification. This isn’t to say that lofty idealism lifts them above the rest. The adverts themselves tread as softly as they can around their delicate quarry, but the world they present is still a world objectified. And yet they tend to avoid one particular object – the human body. Next to an advert for Lavazza coffee or Aldo shoes or Popped (not fried, not baked) crisps, the dating adverts appear scrupulous and prudish.

What the adverts present is instead a kind of mise-en-scène. The evolution of the Lovestruck ads is informative. The very first ones were illustrated rather than photographed. They showed a man and a woman – young, stylish, attractive, urban – the figures arranged in a gently swirling collage of fashionable sites around the city, as if to suggest an open chain of possible rendez-vous. In the second generation of adverts photography replaces illustration and the figures have disappeared. All we see is an empty restaurant, wine glasses sparkling on the table, golden light pouring through the windows. The figures are replaced by one of those map pin style markers from Google Earth. The text on the pin reads: ‘Lovestruck here, Tom and Isabelle, 15.11.12, 1.55pm’.

Underground Dating AdvertThe recent adverts mark a cautious return to the figure. The faces are turned away and the couple remains distant, caught in an embrace overlooking a bridge, or walking hand in hand down a street.

The changing imagery employed by Lovestruck describes a process of logical refinement, as well a tendency to vacillate over the intended meaning of the ad. In the first phase the map pin replaces the people and the photograph replaces the collage of London sites. The power of photography stems from two apparently contradictory qualities: veracity and ambiguity (the photograph appears true regardless of the intentions behind it). For example in a newspaper, the first power guarantees a sense of factuality, while the second power allows the captions, columns and quotations to supply the ultimate meaning. The second generation of Lovestruck ads works in the same way. The photograph sets the scene, creating a real space which nonetheless remains empty. The viewer is invited to project himself into the scene. Meanwhile the text on the map pin anchors the empty space by linking it to a specific event.

The most recent Lovestruck ads are essentially a hybrid of the earlier ones. The figure returns but in photographed form. In order to counter the particularity of the photograph, in order to push the image back into the realm of generality, the figures are held at a distance. We are encouraged to identify with the relationship rather than the individuals. Once again the object of desire is not a personality, still less a body, but rather a situation, a relationship or a scenario.

The adverts for follow a similar path. Recall the adverts from about six months ago. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a figure – the back of a woman’s red dress as she hurries downstairs, for example – but never a whole one. More often what the photographs show are traces: shirts hanging on a window, different coloured high heels lined up for selection, a razor and a shaving cream brush, a mug of coffee and a record player. The centuries old convention of picture-making that these images draw on (a convention perfected by oil painting in the 17th century) is not portraiture, but still life. The scenario in all cases is the same: whoever was here has just left for their date!

Like the high middle-period of the Lovestruck ads, these images draw their power from a sense of absence or anticipated potential. But is in a way much more subtle. What do the record player, the razor, and the sash window have in common? You have to look at the details: the razor’s all-chrome finish and weighted handle, the brushed steel of the record player and the dark wood coffee table which it rests on, and the window, which is not just any window, but a sash window. Bathed in milky white light and shallow focus, all of these objects carry an easy, well-worn sense of affluence. (with its tongue close to its cheek perhaps) claims that the industry is doing particularly well in the UK because ‘the British are just so enlightened and open-minded’. The fact that Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany each spend more on online dating than Spain, Italy and Portugal put together would suggest more basic economic reasons. More to the point, who uses shaving cream brushes anyway?

The latest adverts also see a return of the figure. But again, is slightly more sophisticated. Not just the adverts but the whole business model has gone over to the production of scenarios. ‘Let’s imagine this carriage was reserved for all you lovely singles’, reads the slogan printed over an image of two faces in close-up, indistinct but clearly smiling. And the punch line: ‘At Nights you don’t have to imagine’. Given that the product itself is now a scenario in actuality, there’s no need for the image to summon it virtually. Rather what the image now supplies is precisely the missing figures, or rather an affective impression of the figures. The photograph captures the figures in movement, turning, glancing, a fleeting smile passing between them. It is the affective scenario of the encounter itself.

This is advertising based on the slightest of signifiers. In most adverts the reveal is the one true fundamental law of the image. Even in the high concept, abstract, surreal imagery of perfume and alcoholic drinks – two kinds of intoxicating liquid – there is always a reveal. A leopard enters the palace and makes its way to the princess’ bed chamber. Four white horses rise from the crest of a wave. But the final frame always shows the product, the object of desire. The conceit being that the drink or perfume distills all these sensations, and that it can give them back again – on the tip of your tongue or the nape of your neck (like a genie in a bottle).

It’s strange just how unglamorous the dating adverts are. You might expect Match and Lovestruck to ape Chanel and Drambuie. But in fact the species of advert they have most in common with are banks and insurance companies. In a way it makes sense. The dating agency business model, like high street banks and insurance companies, is based on sustained membership rather than one-off sales of goods. Of course this comparison involves a pretty drastic oversimplification. For one, the big name banks are speculative juggernauts with interests in all kinds of industries. But in terms of their image, they have a surprising amount in common. You could quite happily strap a tagline for Natwest Mortgages on one of the dating adverts.

Both bank adverts and dating adverts speak the language of security, comfort, and ease. For the dating agencies, this represents a promise that you won’t end up with a scoundrel. The internet can be a scary place; the dating agencies promise to regulate it. Hence Lovestruck lists its three main selling points as ‘profile verification’, ‘exclusive events’ and ‘clever matching’, while boasts of ‘strict background checks’. What the dating agencies claim to offer is effectively a kind of class filter. It’s not surprising, but very sad all the same. The same companies that promise to overcome the alienation of everyday life, merely reproduce it by reinforcing our separation from one another.

Not every dating agency sets a premium on exclusivity. In fact, chat/flirt sites and sites geared towards ‘erotic encounters’ far outstrip the dating agencies in terms of sheer numbers of clicks. What’s curious though is that many of the sites falling into these two categories are subsidiaries of larger companies, which also own the dating agencies proper, the matchmaking sites considered here. Moreover the chat/flirt sites often carry advertising for their more profitable and serious looking cousins. There is a strange circularity then, between the mass of casual encounters online, and the prestige brands on-land.

Tourism AdvertOne other point of resemblance worth mentioning: tourism adverts. Like the dating ads they also present a scenario. Take this one, for Morocco: curtains wafting in the breeze, cushions on a lounger, candles round the edge of the pool. Overlaid as a transparency is a woman’s face, her eyes serene, looking out of frame and to the right. The figure is placed by one side. Its gaze is either invisible, turned away from us as in German Romanticism, or indistinct, vague, coy towards its object. Like the dating agencies, the figure’s absence of mind/body invites the viewer to inhabit the scene himself.

What do tourism agencies and dating agencies have in common? Both are examples of what the Situationist, Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle. They sell scenarios, lifestyles. Guardian Lovematch is in many ways the perfect example. Lovematch is part of a lifestyle environment, consisting of articles, images and special-offer products. The image supplied by the dating agencies is no longer an object in a frame, a jewel in a case, but rather a scenario or a lifestyle – a case without a jewel. It is no longer a matter of environment and object, street and advert, the one real and immediately present, the other virtual or represented. What we have is rather two environments, one alienated, the other idealised: a tube carriage and an empty restaurant.

With smart phones and dating apps like Tinder the juxtaposition of the two environments approaches a kind of symbiosis. The app casts a net out over the body of the city, fusing with it at selected points. However the cosmological glamour of the app is mostly to the detriment of the lumpen city. The app promises a world more finely networked, more directly communicative, and more intuitively responsive. Like a secret map or a skeleton key it promises to unlock the treasures of the city. But since the data it relies on is gathered from existing profiles (especially Facebook), the best it can do is to reshuffle already established relationships. Social exclusions, where they exist, are simply reinforced.

Dire as it might sound, there are in fact as many ways of overcoming alienation as there are people struggling to survive: friendship, art, politics, and sometimes, love. Perhaps someone should design a situationist dating app? An app programmed to generate purely random encounters, de-sexualised because it would disregard sexual preference, but more profoundly erotic insofar as it would be an exercise in loss of self, in love.

Another exercise (or tactic), much simpler this time: suppose we take the adverts for literally. Imagine this carriage was reserved for 40 people just like you. Given that alienation is more or less universal, why wouldn’t someone want you to talk to them? Happy Valentine’s day, lonely commuters.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.