Sex Sells

And we're the fattest pimp in town

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A pound of knee-jerk liberalism, a dash of tomato hurling, several helpings of hipper-than-thou critics and more steamy sex than you'll find in a parked car along Nebraska Avenue. That's the tried-and-true formula for alternative newsweeklies such as this one.But it's the sex ads, not the journalism, that provide much of the oil for an alt-weekly's noisy bedsprings.

Flip to the back and see for yourself. You'll be guaranteed an orgasm, solicited by a hot busty brunette named Tawny or enticed by a beautiful woman with her lips pursed around a cherry to call a pay-per-minute chat line. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, total freaks — Weekly Planet has something for you.

"You guys pretty much have that (adult advertising) market cornered," said Bruce Faulman, The Tampa Tribune's advertising director.

Yep, we're the fattest pimp in town. But, baby, we ain't the only player.

Over the past year, one of the liveliest debates to hit the journalism industry's press has centered on adult advertising: personals, video and fetish stores, jack shacks and, well, what amount to hooker directories.

Articles have been written, arguments made, and all the while newspapers have chosen sides. Alt-weeklies such as Boulder Weekly and the Dallas Observer have dropped their steamy ads, while mainstream dailies such as the Detroit Free Press, Albuquerque Journal and Atlanta Journal-Constitution have slapped on the fur-lined handcuffs at profit-filled moments of prurient glee.

Boulder Weekly Publisher Stewart Sallo, who advocates the legalization of prostitution, believes the black market advertised in newspapers creates victims of innocent women.

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," Sallo wrote in an editorial explaining his newspaper's decision to drop adult display ads. "After going to the mat with the complex issues surrounding prostitution and censorship, we have come to the inescapable conclusion that by publishing an adult advertising section we are part of the problem."

Sallo's decision sparked much of the debate that continues today because the publisher didn't shy away from one key point: It's not just adult advertising; it's hooker advertising.

In our endless mission to protect the First Amendment, have the media — or, perhaps more accurately, the alternative press — exploited it in the name of revenue?

Jay Black, a media ethicist at the University of South Florida, thinks so. "The public is not as readily convinced that the First Amendment should include anything," Black said.

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which represents more than 120 newspapers including this one, disagrees. By protecting the rights of a business to advertise, the media protect their rights to print unpopular opinions, Karpel said.

"It's consistent with AAN papers to be liberal with what's acceptable to put in their papers, and that includes sexual matters," Karpel said.

Constitutional and moral issues aside, the debate revolves around money. Adult advertising is lucrative and easy to hawk. Like tobacco and liquor, adult services are one of the few industries unaffected by economic doldrums. No matter how tough the times, sex sells.

"The sex business is just enormous right now," said Planet Publisher Ben Eason.

Adult ads fill as many as 10 of the Planet's 100 or so weekly pages. That, according to Black, has far-reaching consequences that affect not only perceptions, but also the actual confidence media consumers have in the Planet's news coverage.

"How seriously can you take a newspaper which is 70 percent filled with information important for daily living while the other chunk of the newspaper is pandering to much more base instincts?" Black said.

The Planet's flesh peddling has caught the attention of visiting academics attending events at USF, said Black. They've informed the journalism professor that they won't pick up the Planet because of the adult ads. "These are not prudes," Black said. "These are mature people."

But all this ignores one responsibility of a newspaper, according to Eason. "Our job is to connect readers to advertisers and advertisers to readers," he said.

While the newspaper reviews its adult advertising policies regularly and makes changes where and when necessary, the Planet and its parent company, Creative Loafing Inc., will not deputize themselves as morality sheriffs, Eason said. The newspaper simply judges whether the ad is appropriate considering the Planet's readership, an adult audience more liberal than that of the average daily newspaper or television station.

"We ask ourselves, 'Is this in poor taste?'" said Eason.

And that isn't very different from the way the Tribune and St. Petersburg Times handle ads for escorts, massage parlors and video stores. They just exercise a little more discretion.

While this line may sound like something you might read in the back of this newspaper — "XXX Pure Pleasure Grand Opening ... Private Video Booths" — it's actually from the Trib's sports section.

The Trib allows one-inch-by-one-inch adult advertisements in its sports section, while the Times satisfies naughty pleasures in the Weekend entertainment tab and in the sports and classified sections. Neither newspaper pursues the business.

"It's a no-win situation," said the Trib's Faulman. "No matter where you put [the adult ads], you're going to get complaints."

That's why the Times tones down the language. "There never can be any suggestive or offensive copy — no names, no photographs, no graphics," said Times Marketing Director Ed Cassidy.

The amount of adult advertising published in the dailies is but a fraction of the amount published in this newspaper. Unlike the Planet, both the Trib and the Times require adult ads to include street addresses, thereby reducing the chances that the newspapers will publish ads for outcall escorts.

Such policies aren't foolproof, though. In 1998, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office busted a Seffner prostitution ring that drew business from its ads in the Times classified section, where street addresses are not required. Prostitutes paid a company known as Hot Referrals $175 to $200 to have a recorded message on a Times-advertised number that allowed men to arrange dates.

The Planet, meanwhile, isn't any less guilty. A recent caller to the news staff claimed to have been mugged by an escort who advertised in the Planet. To add insult to injury, she did it, the caller said, before he even got his rocks off.

Despite the problems, adult advertising is good business. Why can't readers just ignore the skin, knowing that if newspapers can make a lot of money they can produce good journalism?

"They could make a lot of money selling drugs," said Black. "Why don't they advertise heroin?"

Contact Staff Writer Trevor Aaronson, who appreciates any advertisements that will guarantee his paycheck's on-time arrival, at 813-248-8888, ext. 134, or [email protected].

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