Fictional Walter Mitty Version of Online Dating Gets Real-Life Counterpart

Move over, traditional product placement

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Wilson Webb / Fox

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as is well known by anyone who has read the source material or seen a trailer for the new movie adaptation (out Dec. 25), is about the difference between daydreams and real life. Mitty imagines himself in outlandish and heroic situations while his real life is as bland as can be.

Viewers of the upcoming movie may think that one new element of the Mitty tale is particularly fantastical: his eHarmony customer-service experience, in which a representative of the online-dating service regularly calls him on the phone to talk about his romantic problems and offer advice. It turns out, however, that the eHarmony plotline is less an example of typical Mitty-ish fantasy and more an example of a new model for the cinematic product tie-in business.

(MORE: Read the Short Story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Online)

That’s because, says Grant Langston, eHarmony’s vice president of content and customer experience, the company had that exact same disbelieving thought when they received the script about a year and a half ago. The way eHarmony works in Walter Mitty wasn’t the way it works in real life. In reality, most users fill out a profile, find matches and go on dates, all without ever encountering an eHarmony employee; in the movie, the interactions between that company rep, played by Patton Oswalt, and the protagonist are central to the plot.

“On the one hand I was very excited that we were in the film and Fox seemed to be very interested in making it accurate,” he says, “but on the other hand I was a little bit terrified.” The fear? That potential customers would see the movie, try to sign up for the hand-holding-heavy service seen on screen, and leave disappointed. Usually, Langston says, eHarmony just turns down requests to have the brand associated with movies, and he says that the company has no interest in traditional product placement, where they’d pay to have the brand mentioned. His first instinct was to say no right away to the Mitty request. But at the same time, he thought the screenwriter’s idea of romance matched the company’s — and there was the little matter that, in fact, eHarmony had already been batting around the idea of going in the direction the script happened to take things.

“In the Internet business, there are no hard deadlines. Things have a tendency to slip,” Langston says of the company’s pre-Mitty discussions about launching a personalized matchmaker service. “We decided to take advantage of this [timing] opportunity.”

While eHarmony consulted on what the website should look like on screen, most of the relationship between the brand and the movie went in the other direction, flipping the script, so to speak, on product placement. Drawing on the Mitty script and a 20-minute movie clip Langston saw earlier in the year, the dating service developed what they’re calling eH+, a premium service through which clients can pay $5,000 a year to get the personalized help of a trained matchmaker. (The service launched earlier this month with one marriage and family therapist playing matchmaker; Langston says that he’s ready to hire more as soon as he has a better idea of demand.) Langston says that there was no financial aspect to the use of the eHarmony brand in the film, but that the company opted to participate in co-branded promotions.

(MOREWhy We Don’t Trust Online-Dating Sites — but Use Them Anyway)

So, though the movie has been criticized for overuse of name brands, this example is less about money infecting art than the demands of creativity — old-fashioned online dating is pretty boring to watch on screen, Langston admits — leading to real-world change, limited as this particular case may be. “The thing that I liked most about the way that the movie portrayed the service was the proactivity, and we want to mimic that. It’s funny in the film but it did say to me, ‘Yeah, part of the service here is for us to be checking in with people,'” he says. “We built a service that’s, to our mind, very similar to [the fictional version].”

But, despite a positive experience with eH+ and Walter Mitty, don’t expect the next unrealistic-dating-experience movie to lead to another real-world change, at least not at eHarmony. “This is a brand that is pretty choosy about its associations. You lose control of your image when you agree to those things,” Langston says. “I can’t imagine that we will ever be in another movie.”