Sex Sales

When I was in college I read two publications from back to front: Newsweek and the Dallas Observer. I read Newsweek because I liked the back-page columns by George Will and Meg Greenfield, as well as the magazine's "back of the book" arts coverage. I read the Observer this way because 13 years ago I was more interested in the phone-sex ads and the "seeking" personal ads (men-seeking-men and/or women, women-seeking-men and/or women) than I was in city news.

In fact, during this time I was an intern at a stuffy corporation that I won't name (American Airlines), and one of my few on-the-job joys was the Thursday-morning coffee klatch in a co-worker's cube. She and I would read aloud the best ads we could find from that week's Observer--"best" meaning the most explicit or inappropriate--and laugh merrily.

The point here is not that I had a huge crush on this co-worker. The point is that I developed a fondness for sexually explicit advertisements, and not because I ever tried out their services. (Although, if you throw strip clubs in there, well...) I just thought a publication that mixed coverage of hard news, trends, fine arts and local music with pages and pages of sex ads was cool. It more closely resembled real life to me than the sanitized reflection offered by the mainstream press, even more so as the paper grew and hired better writers and packed its pages with even more ads featuring women whose names end in "y." The Observer, to me, was always at its best when it was smart and sinful in its editorial and advertising. It's why I like HBO better than ABC.

Holding this opinion now puts me in the minority in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News, after a brief fling with "escort" ads (see page 98 for examples of such ads), decided to drop them and all such sexually explicit ads beginning August 1. It has also been reported (in D Magazine and Editor & Publisher, among other places) that the publisher of the Dallas Observer, Alison Draper, would like to severely limit the number of such ads in our paper. She has already banished the personal ads to online only.

Now, I can understand why the Morning News doesn't want them in their paper, because many of these "escort" advertisements are really public notices for escort/hookers. Me, I don't have a problem with that. Anyone with my hotel pay-per-view record would have a hard time criticizing folks doing what it takes to ease their way through the night. But the News' advertisers and readers are a different breed. They have clear moral values. And you can bet they raised holy hell.

"The ads didn't sit well with a lot of our readers, and they didn't sit well internally," says Bob Mong, the News' editor. He says a letter was recently sent to adult advertisers telling them that gentlemen's clubs (a.k.a. strip clubs) and other adult live-entertainment businesses would not be allowed to run ads. Which means you'll probably still see some ads for New Fine Arts and other video shops near your box scores, but nothing more.

Even though some daily papers are putting their toes in the dirty waters of sexual advertising--papers in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta, for example--the DMN is backing away because Dallas is a more conservative market. It's the same reason the Observer runs less explicit ads than other papers owned by Phoenix-based New Times.

It's not the only reason, though.

"It's a managerial nightmare," says Draper, very happy to be buzzed on her cell phone while she's on vacation. "The escort ads especially. They push the boundaries of tasteful verbiage and presentation every week. I hear a complaint from a reader or advertiser about those ads every day of every week."

To combat the headaches, Draper has employed several strategies designed to lessen the perception that the Observer is rife with sex ads. She has reduced the number of escort ad pages from four to two (on average) and threatens to take it even smaller. (She says she doesn't get complaints about, nor does she have a big problem with, topless-club ads.) She wants to move to headshots only on the photographs that run with the ads. She has cleaned up the language--some might say forced the advertisers to be less truthful. No longer do you see copy points such as "horny girls" or "barely 18." She has increased the prices for such ads to the point that escort advertisers pay four times the normal rate. Doesn't matter. The sex trade is not affected by the bear market.

But why run them at all, if they're so terrible, if some higher-end advertisers (automotive, some restaurants) say they would be more willing to buy ads if we cleaned up? Why stay a little bit pregnant? Aside from the fact they're stuffing our pockets with cash, of course.

"Because we're an 'alternative newsweekly,'" Draper says. "Yes, it's a fine line, but we're trying to walk it: We want to be alternative without crossing the line into smut. Which means we will continue to run them, but we will watch content and presentation."

Understandable, if you believe such ads are harmful to your reputation or peace of mind. And so many readers and advertisers fixate on these ads, I suppose it makes sense to do whatever it takes to diminish their impact.

But I still don't see why a paper that prides itself on describing to its readers the messy, slimy, adult way the world really works should be so ashamed of titillating advertisements.

"We run hooker ads. Let's call them what they are," says Dallas Observer editor Julie Lyons. "I hate them. I think they're disgusting. They embarrass me...Alison's decision to tone them down, to reduce the number we run and move out the worst offenders was the most courageous thing I've ever seen a publisher do. Remember that she did this during a recession. We're a better paper because of it, and her decision hasn't hurt us financially. If we get rid of all of them, I think we'll do even better."

Lyons mentions she was upset when she read that the 13-year-old prostitutes recently arrested in Plano were runaways who met their pimp through a Dallas Observer ad. "Yeah, it's a free country, but I don't care how liberal you are, how much you think you're a supporter of the First Amendment, that's just shameful."

Yes, it is, no question. But I'm still torn as to whether running such ads is a bad thing. I know it's good business, at least in terms of dollars and cents. I don't care what anyone says; if this newspaper opened its doors to every whore, hooker, harlot, stripper, dominatrix, gigolo, stud, pimp, madam and porn star in Dallas, it would make a lot more money than anything it could recoup from a few more "respectable" advertisers.

But if you decide that it shouldn't only be about the money, that the ads we run in the paper set a tone that should be monitored, fine.

Then run the ads because you're "alternative," sanitize them because they offend you, take enough money to cover the cost of producing those pages because you're a business and donate every other cent you make from escort ads to a women's shelter because you think it's the right thing to do. And stop forcing me to question my moral ambiguity. It makes me uncomfortable.