Iso A Place For Personal Ads In An Internet World

August 21, 2004|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN STAFF

If a personal ad took out a personal ad -- "AGELESS BEAUTY: Single, trim, 39 years old, always a bridesmaid, never a bride, enjoys meeting new people, threatened by technology, fashionably out of style, seeking a change" -- no one would respond.

That's because the matchmaking business has moved on to the Internet, where lonely hearts can write endless descriptions of themselves and their favorite things (sunsets, puppies, walks on the beach). The traditional newspaper personal ad, meanwhile, is dying a slow death.

RIP, SWF.

"It's a lot like a fern bar," said Richard Meeker, publisher of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., referring to the singles bars popular in the '80s. Personals are like a bunch of other things that singles have done over time. There's a big burst of short duration and then afterward you have diminishing returns. It's one of those things that, for this generation, has seen its heyday.

Some newspapers have given up on personals entirely (including The Sun), saying they can make more money selling the space for other kinds of ads. Others have sharply reduced the space allotted to them: The City Paper in Baltimore used to run four pages of them a decade ago. Now it runs one. And in a recent issue, because of a space crunch, it ran none at all. "We've really seen it decline over the last five years," said City Paper publisher Don Farley, who also publishes weekly papers in Detroit, Or-lando and San Antonio. "We keep them in thepaper as a matter of readership, not as a revenue source."

It's true. Reading personals can be muchmore fun than responding to them. And so thedeath of the personal ad represents a loss toeveryone, attached or not, who finds pleasure and amusement in the back pages of the newspaper. They are, in their own little way, an art form.

Personals seem old-fashioned, discreet in their three or four lines of small black type. Noitalics. No glamour shots. Just a few words inwhich to set yourself apart and tempt your readers. Acronyms developed -- ISO, LTR, N/S, N/D,LD -- and became part of the lexicon.

But within that strict form are tiny performances, 25-word haikus of love and yearning. The best personals are direct and surprising. They can be lyrical, opening a window into the soul of the author. They hint at depth and substance, and they aspire to something great. They make you laugh.

Take this one from a recent issue of the City Paper: "THAT PERSONAL AD: Jackie seeks Hyde. 40-year-old SWF, raven-haired, confident, fireball, beauty seeks mellow, independent-minded, quietly loveable, and sexy (30s-40s) SWM for basement frolics and kooky mayhem."

The references are to That '70s Show, a Fox sitcom about teens growing up in the '70s, featuring two characters named Jackie and Hyde who often hang out in a friend's basement. You don't need to know the show to like the ad. But if you do, you already feel a connection with that raven-haired beauty.

Her only mistake: She gave away her age. Personals experts say women should never list their age. Rather, they should give the age range for the man they want to meet, and let readers assume their age based on that.

Here's another, from the same issue: "MY WONDERFUL GAY SON: I am running this ad because my son just cannot seem to meet anyone of quality. He is SWM, 21, smoker, hysterically funny, well-read, romantic, and kind of heart."

Finding a mother's endorsement in a personal is unusual, and it sets this one apart. What this mom did for her son is sweet (albeit meddling). But it could backfire: What mother doesn't find her son hysterically funny and kind of heart? You wonder how much the endorsement is worth.

But at least it makes you wonder. Reading personals provides what Marc Brancaccio, the head of classifieds for the Boston Phoenix, calls the "tip of the iceberg" feeling. Internet sites, he says, provide so many details as to turn people off. But newspaper personals are more intriguing. Less is more.

"I believe there is such a thing as too much information out there. People get overloaded," Brancaccio says. "When you look at pictures online, everybody knows those pictures are [phoney]. They're outdated or photoshopped or not even them. But with a newspaper print ad, pretty much what you see is what you get. It's somehow more personal."

Acceptable avenue

Dan Savage, editor of the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger and author of a sex and love advice column, said it wasn't until the 1990s that the personals lost their stigma as something pathetic. Print personals enjoyed their brief heyday in the 1990s, and their decline, Savage said, is directly related to the rise of the Internet. It's not that people have given up on the idea of finding love among strangers.

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