The violent creator of VHS dating.
Jeffrey Ullman was the forerunner of modern dating services. Why don’t we remember him?
Jeffrey Ullman was frustrated. He knew videotape was the future, but he couldn’t seem to figure out how to make his mark. He was filming golfers and tennis players and then letting them analyze their swings on instant replay for $25 an hour. However, this was not profitable. He was having to work as a traveling teflon salesman to make ends meet. Then at a dinner party in 1975 a friend complained to him about meeting men. Blind dates were awkward. Chance encounters were too risky. Ullman was instantly inspired. “Advertise” he told her.
With a loan from his parents, on February 14, 1976, Ullman opened the doors to Great Expectations for the first time. It was initially terribly small. A windowless office in LA with his mother coaching the clients and his wife running the books. In time though it would become the largest dating service in the world.
Great Expectations would become a household name in large part because of the billion pieces of direct mail sent to consumers. They had offices in every major city. Ullman claimed to be responsible for 10,000 marriages--though this number seems to have come from Ullman’s imagination, his dating centers generally did not keep data on this sort of thing. Ullman himself would appear on talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey, Merv Griffin, Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donahue, and Sally Jessy Raphaël. Ullman would become a millionaire and a collector of African Art.
Yet today Great Expectations no longer exists in any form. As of this writing it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page--a sure sign of obscurity. If you google “Jeffrey Ullman” the top results are about a Stanford professor with the same name. What happened?
Elliot Doering was frustrated. He had seen an ad promising he could meet "Shorewood singles" in 2006 (Shorewood is a neighborhood of Milwaukee). The ad led the disabled Vietnam veteran to Great Expectations in nearby Wauwatosa, where a fast-talking sales rep pressured him into signing a confusing, long-term contract. He ended up paying nearly $6,000. Doering never met anyone. There weren’t even any locals he could have met. "No one in Shorewood. It was a complete scam" Doering said.
Dozens of singles told a local Fox affiliate that they had been taken for thousands of dollars and received no dates. A 2007 undercover investigation revealed sign ups that were practically coerced.
Christen Conner / Great Expectations Director: "It's rude to stand up and walk out on a girl."
FOX6 Investigators Producer: "Yeah, but it's rude to keep someone here against their will, too."
Conner: "I'm not keeping you against your will."
FOX6 Investigators Producer: "Well, if I don't have my driver's license I can't leave without it, like you said."
Conner: "Sit down."
The news sting prompted an investigation by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. The state Department of Justice sued Great Expectations for violating the state's Do Not Call list, misrepresenting the number of members, and for using "high pressure, oppressive tactics" to get people to sign contracts.
Great Expectations responded by shutting down their Wisconsin operations completely. When the company fled from the state Doering figured he had little chance of ever getting his money back. The state pressed on though and eventually won a $500,000 settlement from Great Expectations in 2014. Doering got most of his money back and considered the experience a triumph of good over evil. Great Expectations paid a similar amount to the state of Arizona. These lawsuits helped put an end to the company.
By then though Great Expectations was being controlled by a Texas millionaire named John Meriggi. Jeffrey Ullman had exited the company in 1995. Why had Ullman left the company whose growth and prestige he valued more than the money it generated? Maybe he was still bitter about the franchise owners revolting against his high fees. Maybe it was because his eccentric behavior had gotten him banned from the dating centers. Or maybe he saw the writing on the wall when Match.com launched that same year.
Danna Reich Colman was just going into Great Expectations to support her recently divorced cousin Barbara when she was spotted by Jeffrey Ullman. This was 1980, years before Ullman would be banned from the centers for making the employees cry with his bullying. Ullman took one look at the 55 year old Barbara and told her that there would be few prospects for her, and her chances of finding a match would be slim to none. He said Colman on the other hand was “perfect for our services.”
Ullman ushered the women to the library which held hundreds of three-ring binders filled with member profiles. Colman was struck by the fact that the people were looking through the binders with the back cover facing upward. Then she realized that this was so they could look at the photos before reading the profiles. Because why waste time with reading profiles of ugly people?
Colman wanted to run. She wasn’t interested in this at all, she had only come to support her cousin. Ullman insisted that Great Expectations could help her find someone special if given a chance. In fact Ullman said he would not be putting Colman’s profile or tape out for public view because he was afraid she would be overwhelmed by the amount of requests she would receive. This puzzled Colman--she wasn’t a model or an actress, she was a 33 year old court stenographer, also divorced. Why would she be overwhelmed with suitors?
Matchmaking services existed before Great Expectations. Ullman had nothing but scorn for them. He wasn’t deciding who should date who, he was creating a marketplace for dating. He had two big innovations. One was that people would only meet once both of them agree to meet--it had to be reciprocal. This led to some contradictory advice in Great Expectations introductory video. One person advises people to be a bit choosy with who you date. Another person advises going out with as many people as possible. There are no prizes for guessing the respective genders of the people giving the differing advice.
Except this system didn’t work as well with a centralized office as it does online today. The fact that you had to come into a real location meant there was a chance of bumping into someone who had rejected you, and vice versa. You also ran the risk of running into previous bad dates and people you knew in high school.
The other innovation was the video. When new members signed up they did a video interview in which subjects were asked about their values and interests. The video gives you lots of information in a compact, discreet way, Ullman argued. You have to show as much as possible the essence of the person,” he said. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what do you think video with audio is worth—ten million words?”
There were two supposed strengths of video. One was that it was that you couldn't lie about who you were. Since you had to go into the Great Expectation centers in person to record a video, it would be impossible to catfish anyone. Except people still lied. “One guy picked me. He said he was in PR. He said he was 5-foot-9,” said Barbara Lakin, a photo editor at TriStar Pictures, who described her one-year Great Expectations membership as “a joke.” “It turned out he was a limo driver. And he was like 5-foot-3!”
The other strength was that people would unconsciously reveal more information than they would choose to share on a written profile. Except this wasn’t necessarily a good idea at all. Modern dating websites tend to not include videos in profiles. And the interviews were highly staged and awkward.
The day after Colman signed up and paid a very steep membership fee, she spent several hours searching through the books and sitting in a booth watching personal videos, after which she told a staff member that she had only found three men that she would be interested in meeting. A shaky start when there were several hundred male members.
All three of the men responded to her requests and were given her phone number. None of the three resulting dates went well. Dana had picked them because she thought they were attractive, but found there was no substance behind them. Colman decided to tell Great Expectations to make her profile available for other members to look through. She would subsequently get 250 requests for dates in the next two weeks.
Colman didn’t have time to watch all of their videos, she had to just skim profiles and watch a few select videos. Over the next six months she would go on an average of two dates a week and she met approximately fifty eligible men. She found many of them “bright, witty and interesting” but never found herself interested in going beyond a first date. She would eventually marry a man she met through her work. She would give her fiancé her Great Expectations video as an engagement gift.
Comparing Elliot Doering and Danna Reich Colman’s stories it is possible to come to some different conclusions about Jeffery Ullman. The generous takeaway would be that while Great Expectation’s later owners were happy to bilk older singles out of their money, Ullman was a straight shooter who was realistic with people about their chances.
The more cynical take is that for Ullman the value of getting someone in his system like Colman--a relatively young, skinny, white woman--was far greater than fees he would have collected from her older cousin.
However, even the cynical take is still perhaps too generous. After all, why wouldn’t a 55 year old woman have a chance of getting a date? Presumably there were men 55 and older coming to Great Expectations for dating help. Now those men might have needed a nudge in the right direction (a common problem with dating services is that men aim to date younger women) but that’s your job.
Perhaps the reason Ullman didn’t want Colman’s older cousin isn’t that he couldn’t get her a date, but that he is superficial to the point of cruelty. Ullman was sensitive to teasing that Great Expectations was a losers club. It was more important to him to have prestigious clients than to actually help vulnerable people coming to him. His cruel superficiality particularly came through when working with his sister.
Dyan Ullman was a vice president at Great Expectations. Warm and funny, she relaxed Great Expectations members and made them feel at home. But her brother couldn’t stand having her as a public face of the company. “She was excessively overweight,” Jeffrey Ullman said. “I don’t just mean overweight. I mean, her clothing, her hair, her nails--she wouldn’t wear hose. She was a lesbian! I didn’t care about that, but it showed.” Dyan left the company in 1984.
Dyan was a great salesperson and interviewer, but her brother couldn’t stand having homosexual on staff who didn’t have the decency to hide her orientation. (Great Expectations only provided services to heterosexuals.) His cruel obsession with appearances cost him a valued employee. And, not that it matters, but from photos of Dyan, she does not appear to be overweight.
Ullman also fired his mother. Twice.
By the 90’s Great Expectations had become a cultural touchstone, appearing in media such as Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles. But it usually appeared as a punching bag. Sketch comedy show MADtv had a recurring bit, Lowered Expectations, where hapless dorks begged for dates.
Great Expectations was a useful plot tool for sitcoms like Ellen and The Simpsons to show that characters were hopeless at dating.
Ullman didn’t take these insults lying down. When Santa Monica Bank put out a slogan ″We handle more zeros than a dating service.″ Ullman organized a protest outside one of their branches. Two of the other protesters also owned dating agencies. The bank just shrugged--they put out a joke slogan every month.
In 1994 the LA Times put out a scathing profile of Ullman entitled “Love God From Hell : The Man Who Brought You Video dating Hates to Date, Loves to Taunt and Has Himself Been Unlucky in Love. Would You Buy a Relationship From Jeffrey Ullman?” It brought to light Ullman’s tendency to physically attack his enemies.
In 1991 at an LA trade show Helena Amram, a self-described spouse-hunter, ran into her rival Ullman. Ullman says Amram spit in his face, which she denied. Ullman slapped Amram so hard she said it shook loose her dental implants and made her deaf in one ear. Ullman pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery charges and was sentenced to community service.
Larry Hash was a Anaheim used-car salesman who felt cheated by Great Expectations. He protested in front of one of the centers with a sign reading “I GOT RIPPED OFF BY GREAT EXPECTATIONS.” Ullman came out and punched Hash. Twice. (Ullman says the blows came after Hash whacked him with the sign.)
Ullman’s second wife said he was physically abusive during their divorce proceedings, but she later backtracked on that.
Whatever his reasons were Ullman probably made a good call in selling his stake in the company he founded. Though Great Expectations would launch its own website, it couldn’t compete with the low prices of online only dating services. Today greatexpecations.com is available to anyone who wants to buy it.
Ullman’s path in life was less clear after he left Great Expectations. He says he was brought in numerous times to "ghost" executive produce for UV Entertainment. It’s hard to conceive of Ullman doing anything quietly without taking credit. Also the quantity of TV he says he produced, 2,400+ hours--nearly three years worth--strains credulity. His LinkedIn lists a dozen projects he lurched from.
One particularly ill conceived project was Twoology. In this interview he talks about how badly his service is needed. 70% of marriages end in divorce, and 20% percent of marriages are unhappy. But Ullman can help save your relationships with his short psychological quizzes that can help you do better. After all, he'd been married most of his adult life.
This is of course all bullshit. The divorce rate is actually less than 2%. Ullman bragging about how he’d been married all his life conveniently skated past the fact that he was now on his fourth marriage. It was pretty unlikely that there was any science behind his tests. His claim to be using psychology now was pretty hilarious considering what he had said years earlier: “Great Expectations has spent more money than any other company in the country trying To develop an effective compatibility-matching program. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ullman says passionately. “I hired Ph.D.s up the ying-yang! I chose the best research and the best experts in the country, and the best was shit. I finally came to the sad conclusion that psychological matching is no more effective than throwing wet noodles against the wall to see what sticks. The shortcomings were awesome.”
Of course Ullman’s claim that he had Ph.D.s “up the ying-yang” was also almost certainly bullshit. He gave an even more off the wall interview for his relationship service where he claimed couples were only together because “They’re waiting for their children to die.” Then he kissed the reporter.
Ullman’s unloved twitter page shows that he also tried to sell relationship help under the name happiercouples.org. That website still exists but it doesn’t seem to have any connection with Ullman. It currently sells $50 guides on how to give a blowjob.
Ullman’s nature of being superficial to the point of cruelty served him well while running a dating agency. But it meant that no one was interested in getting serious relationship advice from him.
In 2016 tragedy struck the Ullman family. His wife Cindy was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer with five tumors in her liver. The prognosis was grim; she would probably only have six months to live. But every cloud has a silver lining, because Jeffrey Ullman saw a business opportunity.
Ullman’s current project is GoodFor, a maker of topical CBD ointments for pain. Ullman is smart enough to not just say “My product cures cancer.” That would bring the FDA down on him. All over his website though it talks about how Cindy was supposed to die, she started using CBD oil, and she is now still alive and kicking. It wouldn’t be hard for a desperate person to draw conclusions.
You can get a free sample of GoodFor here.