When does an ad go too far? We may have found out

Public Editor

April 22, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

The advertisement's headline proclaimed in big letters: "My Boyfriend's SECRET for Amazing SEX!" The text went on to extol the virtues of Maxoderm, an ointment that claims to enhance male sexual performance. It even had a bold-faced and underlined passage from a very satisfied female partner who said her boyfriend's lovemaking made "my orgasms go through the roof!"

The 3-column wide by 10-inch ad, which was accompanied by a photograph of a couple in an intimate embrace, was not published in a men's magazine or on the Internet. It was found on an inside page of The Sun's April 13 sports section. Even though sexual performance ads have been staples of the newspaper's sports section for some time, this one appeared to take things to a new level.

To say that readers were surprised and upset by this ad would be an understatement, as I've received a number of reactions in recent days. Some were concerned that children and young teenagers reading the sports section would be exposed to adult-oriented material. Others believed the ad promoted promiscuity.

Reader Mark Stricklin said: "I'm trying to develop my 12-year-old son into a daily newspaper reader and the sports section is our best bet. But when he came across this particular ad, he became embarrassed and I became angry. We should not be exposed to this kind of graphic stuff."

From Agnes Gambino: "My husband and I are not prudes, but this ad is over the top and not appropriate for The Sun. It sends the wrong kind of message about what's most important in life through its language. Is nobody at the newspaper paying attention?"

For The Sun's advertising department, which is working in a fiercely competitive environment for advertising dollars, analyzing the propriety of ad content is not usually a top priority. But the newspaper does have standards for ads and the Maxoderm item may serve as the tipping point where language and tone get as much attention as photos in ads.

After reviewing this ad, The Sun's director of retail advertising, Marty Padden, said: "Newspapers have to do a better job monitoring the content of their advertising."

Lester Holze, sales manager for national advertising at The Sun, admitted that he and his staff usually pay more attention to pictures than copy because the amount of clothing worn and the kind of poses in advertising photos are most noticeable.

After reading the Maxoderm copy again, Holze agreed that some of the language was overly provocative. "The bold and underlined passages should have been noticed," Holze said. "Our standard is that copy describing sexual activity should be written in medical-type language. This is not the case with everything in this ad." Many readers would agree.

The Sun places sexual performance and enhancement ads only in its sports section. When asked why, Holze said that the A section, Today and other features sections are considered to have too broad an audience. "Sports has a very male-dominated readership, so we think it is the one section where these ads are less likely to offend," he said.

Truth be told, when compared with advertising in magazines, the Internet and cable TV, ads in newspapers are still relatively modest. But the boundaries are steadily being pushed.

Readers recently complained about a full-page ad in the A section that showed two young people with parts of their clothing unbuttoned and unzipped. The Sun's advertising department has for years used the "Hecht's/Macy's" test (if it's acceptable for department Stores, it is acceptable for the newspaper). But in light of today's ever-loosening standards, that may be an unreliable barometer.

So where can readers expect The Sun to draw the line in the future?

Holze provided this recent example: "The Sun and a Web site had reached an agreement for them to place an ad in the newspaper. But when we reviewed the photos and copy, we realized that they were selling pornographic DVDs and sexual toys. We then rejected the ad."

Reader Melvin Novak offered a longer view: "Over the years, I have been disappointed to see the continuous decline in the type of advertising you have accepted. What began as the occasional small ads for so-called gentlemen's clubs or an adult video store has progressed recently to include quarter-page ads in the sports section offering to make me `stay hard longer,' complete with testimony and picture of an obviously satisfied woman. Apparently what makes this and other such ads acceptable is that the participants are `real loving couples' instead of professional porn stars. Or is it that the products are `recommended by leading doctors and therapists,' so this is really a public service? Or worse, is it, `Hey, a buck's a buck, and we need the money.' "

Holze said that The Sun would be re-evaluating its ad copy requirements. In my view, the Maxoderm ad is a good place to start.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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