By: Mark Fitzgerald
YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T know that witches had their own anti-defamation league.
But when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette turned down a voice personal ad from a witch seeking to meet other witches, Debra Alward heard from the organization that protects practitioners of the pagan religion known as Wicca.
Sales development manager Alward cited the paper’s policy against using its voice personals to assemble groups: no book clubs, no bowling leagues ? no covens.
“We have to watch out for terms like ‘the black arts,’ ” but if the ad were, say, ‘A Wiccan seeking a man’ ? that would be OK,” Alward said, in an interview at the recent Interactive Newspapers ’95 conference in Dallas.
Promulgating policies about witches is just one of the complications newspapers face when they get into voice personal ads.
No matter how mainstream voice personal ads become, the concern about offensive, inappropriate or even dangerous ads never quite goes away for mainstream papers.
The Post-Gazette’s Alward and other newspaper executives were quick to emphasize that the vast majority of personal ads pose no problem: They’re placed by nice people seeking nice people.
“In four years we have not had a security problem,” said Frank Dorf, electronic media manager for the Sacramento Bee.
But as more people come out of various kinds of sexual closets, more managers of publications that still refer to themselves as “family newspapers” are confronting the question, How far is too far for their readers?
To be sure, this is not a problem everywhere.
At the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example, advertising director Terry Hebert says he gets perhaps four letters a month protesting personal ad categories, such as “men seeking men” and “women seeking women.”
“Even if I multiplied that by the silent majority out there, it is nothing compared to what I got by not running them. We were afraid of getting lawsuits over gay rights,” Hebert said.
The Plain Dealer is gaining in another way: Responses to same-sex ads account for about 900 minutes of telephone time each month.
Trickier than those catering to gay and lesbian dating, however, are the so-called “alternate lifestyle” ads: a catchall category that can include anyone from leather aficionados to transgender S&M practitioners.
Even here, however, newspapers can profit.
For instance, after receiving complaints about alternate lifestyle ads printed in the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune, the paper decided to run that type of ad only on the telephone voice box.
“That did two things,” electronic marketing systems manager Gary Smith said. “First, the number of alternate lifestyle ads went up. And, second, the browse minutes for alternate lifestyle ads went up dramatically because it was the only way to get the category.”