The personal ad, once disdained as the meeting place of the weird and the desperate, has vaulted into respectability among mainstream single people, many of whom are educated, hold down good jobs and, at least by their own description, would pass inspection by your mother.
The explosive growth of personals has resulted from wholesale frustration with the traditional dating scene, experts say. Sophisticated new phone technology also has created opportunities for singles to more creatively "market" themselves through extended voice-mail exchanges and even appropriate background music.
Many people today work and commute long hours, shun the bar scene and generally lead more isolated lives, where chance meetings at the laundromat or even blind dates are rare.
"It's hard to meet single people in the 'burbs," wrote Very Very Pretty, Slim, Fit, DWF, 35, in a recent classified in the weekly Algonquin (Ill.) Countryside. "Take a risk! I did," she pleaded.
Short on time and patience, these prospective daters have stopped wading through geeks at parties, or worse, languishing at home, and are instead composing or answering personal ads designed to bring compatible people together quickly and efficiently.
"The whole idea is to take charge of your life," said Gail Prince, a Chicago singles consultant and star of the videotape "Flirting -- How to Do It Right," who recommends that her clients consider the personals.
Publishers and psychologists say the popularity of personal ads has jumped significantly in the last two years as singles grow more comfortable with the idea.
At the Chicago Reader, the city's major weekly publication, the number of personal ads has more than tripled since 1990, said Thomas Yoder, advertising director. He said the Reader runs more than 250 personal ads a week, many seeking traditional mates, although not all. But it isn't just hip, urban publications read by young, single, liberal types enjoying the boom.
At Pioneer Press, which publishes 38 suburban Chicago weeklies in such conservative towns as Schaumburg and Barrington, Ill., the number of personal ads in its Meeting Place column has jumped from an average of 50 a week to 110 in the last year, said Dan Raker, Pioneer's technical support supervisor.
Singles are also looking for love in mainstream magazines like New York and Los Angeles and in big dailies such as the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle, which started accepting the ads last October and runs 200 per weekend.
The Los Angeles Times started running singles personals last month and on the first day, after heavily promoting the idea, ran 1,300 ads, said Laura Morgan, a spokeswoman. "Readers have been asking for it," Ms. Morgan said. "We spent a long time thinking about it, and we decided it seemed entirely appropriate and would be a valuable reader service as long as we established some standards of good taste."
Advertisers in the Pioneer Press range from a 21-year-old woman, 5 feet 6 inches tall, 190 pounds, who likes fishing and asks, "How about going out and taking in a movie every now and then?" to a 72-year-old retired marketing executive, 6 feet 1 inches tall, 210 pounds, who writes, "even with a few aches & my armor squeaks a little, I'm still young enough to believe in romance."
In between, there are Baby Boomers of every shape, size and inclination.
For the ladies, there is "Skinny wolf looking for Slim Fox," or "attractive SWM, 24," who declares "abstract sense of humor opt."
"Attractive" not quite right? There is also "good looking" and "great looking." Your choice.
"Tired of Games? Me Too," an ad for "Tall white male, 32," declares.
"Tired of the bar scene? Me Too," writes DWF, 40.
With ennui in common, could this be a match?
"There are a lot of good, lonely people out there who are in search of companionship who want a safe way to meet other people like themselves," said Dick Gilbert, the president and publisher of Pioneer Press. "I think it's a very respectable and certainly now very popular way to meet people like themselves."
While the newfound respectability of personals helps to explain the boom, there is another important explanation for the newfound popularity of boy-advertises-for-girl, boy-meets-girl or vice versa.
In the past year or two, many publications have adopted sophisticated new voice mail systems, called audiotext, that allow readers, for a fee, to interact with advertisers via the telephone.
With audiotext, a reader using a touch-tone phone can call a 900 number mentioned in a personal ad, hear the voice of the person who wrote the ad and then perhaps leave a response.