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.
ItM-Fs a lot like a fern bar, said Richard Meeker, publisher of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., referring to the singles bars popular in the M-F80s. Personals are like a bunch of other things that singles have done over time. ThereM-Fs a big burst of short duration and then afterward you have diminishing returns. ItM-Fs 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.
"WeM-Fve really seen it decline over the last five years, said City Paper publisher Don Farley, who also publishes weekly papers in Detroit, Orlando and San Antonio. We keep them in the paper as a matter of readership, not as a revenue source."
ItM-Fs true. Reading personals can be much more fun than responding to them. And so the death of the personal ad represents a loss to everyone, 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. No italics. 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."
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.
"The impulse toward personals is huge," he said. "The ways in which people used to meet each other are now out of bounds. You can't hit on people at work. You can't hit on people on the bus. No one wants their families to set them up anymore. You need a place in which you can publicly say you're seeking romance."
He said that place, if it isn't a bar, is the Internet, where pictures and descriptions offer a better sense of a person than a short personal. Seeking to save the form, Savage's paper this summer merged its Internet, print and telephone personals into one system - Lovelab. On the paper's Web site, readers are asked a series of essay, fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions written by the paper's staff. ("Monorail or light rail," "Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise.")
Users are also asked to write a brief teaser ad to appear in the print edition of the paper. Editors then choose the best teasers and publish them, urging readers to go online for more information and to see more personals.
Lovelab was launched on June 18, with more than a thousand readers signing up in the first month. The service has attracted a younger audience than that for traditional print personals. The average age of a female Lovelab user is 29.5, compared to 40 for the Stranger's print ads.
Papers often allow print personals to be placed for free. But to respond to one you must call a number and pay about $2 a minute. The same cost applies to picking up messages your ad generated. Internet sites are often cheaper. Many offer a free, basic membership while charging for extra services, such as prominent placement on the site.
The New York Review of Books is generally credited with running the first modern-day personals in 1965. They quickly became famous for their shameless pretension. Everyone speaks French and holds an advanced degree. But the newspaper is also famous for one ad in particular: "Before I turn 67 - next March - I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me."
The ad was placed in 1999 by Jane Juska, an English teacher who took a sabbatical to respond to the 63 men who contacted her. She turned her experiences into a book, A Round-Heeled Woman, which was published last year.
"I say in all modesty that it's the one true stroke of genuis I will probably ever experience," Juska says of her ad. She said she didn't want to use an Internet dating site because of all the questions those sites ask and because many require a photograph.
"I wasn't going to send a photograph. Who would answer me?" said Juska, now 71 and living in Berkeley, Calif. In any case, she said, a good newspaper personal ad is harder to write than an Internet one. "It requires you to do a lot more thinking and a lot more figuring out what you're really after."
Her ad said exactly what she wanted, and four years later she's pleased to report that it was a success. She maintains romantic relationships and good friendships with several of the men she met, though she admits she has yet to find "Mr. Right."
Amy Albert, a writer and photographer, showed her personal ad to several friends before placing it in a recent issue of the New York Review. At the same time, she placed personals online at the Yahoo and eHarmony sites. While the online postings generated more responses, the ones from the New York Review were more promising.
"The most interesting responses have come from the New York Review, probably because they're more literary types and they have a longer attention span," said Albert, 45, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y. "I don't have to have a William Butler Yeats or Jonathan Franzen, but if they can't string a sentence together, then I'm not interested."
Albert would be sorry to see the newspaper personal go, but some editors and publishers say it may just be something whose time is up - like fern bars and wine coolers.
"Does anybody go to a fern bar anymore? Of course not. But for a while, they were a hot thing," said Meeker. His paper's annual revenue from personals has fallen from $750,000 to about $150,000 since the late '90s. Other papers report similar, significant declines. At the Independent Weekly in Raleigh, N.C., personals revenue is down from $360,000 a year to about $50,000.
Erik Cushman, publisher of Monterey County Weekly in California, said he will keep personals in his paper even if he could save money by cutting them out or using the space for other types of ads. Readers just like them, he says.
"It's like a car crash," he says. "You see something gory on the side of the road and you want to stop and look at it. It's the inner voyeur. People like the absurd or the sordid or the tawdry, and there's a little bit of that in there."
He has another theory as to why personals are in decline: "I think it's just been an overwhelming success. All the lonely desperate souls have found mates."
Now that's wishful thinking.
Perhaps personals most lasting impact are the acronyms that developed. Here's how to break the code when you see that an SBPM is ISO an N/S F for an LTR:
ISO: In search of
LTR: Long-term relationship
LD: Light drinker