Sex, Blood and Advertising

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Post advertising content can be as controversial as Post journalism.

Some parents were unhappy with a full-page, blood-splattered ad on the back of the Sept. 28 KidsPost page. It was for the Showtime cable series "Dexter," about "America's favorite serial killer." Readers also have frequently complained about ads with sexual content. And two recent General Motors advertising supplements were controversial for mixing recycled news with ads.

Advertising is the lifeblood of newspapers; it makes up 80 percent of Post revenue. As at other big-city newspapers, Post print advertising is lagging; revenue dropped from $603 million in 2004 to $573 million in 2006 and is down 14 percent this year.

The ad for the return of the Showtime series "Dexter" drew the most fire. The show is about a serial killer who only goes after bad guys. George Towery, principal of Fairfax County's Cameron Elementary School, wrote: "I have subscribed to your paper for many years and thought the full-page color ad in this morning's paper . . . was extremely inappropriate. We use The Washington Post at school as a regular part of our curriculum daily and do not think that is what we want our students to think the newspaper is about."

Krissy Benner of McLean wrote: "Everyday I read the KidsPost with my boys after school. This morning I tore out the KidsPost page to save it for them. I was very horrified when I turned the page over today and saw a full-page ad . . . featuring a smiling man with blood splattered all over his face. How am I going to explain this disturbing picture?"

The Post may be the only big newspaper in the country with a staff-produced daily page for children; it usually runs on the back page of the Style section or just inside. Advertising executives don't monitor what goes on the back of KidsPost, but editors try to keep an eye out for inappropriate ads.

Katharine Weymouth, vice president of advertising, didn't see the ad before it was published. She said she would have tried to change it had she known. Executive Editor Len Downie found out about it late in the evening and alerted Publisher Bo Jones, who felt it was too late to change.

Another questionable ad ran in April on the back of KidsPost -- a full-page body lotion ad featuring a nude woman. Weymouth wrote to an upset reader: "We actually had a fair amount of internal debate about whether to run it and ultimately, decided to take it. We erred on the side of running it because we felt that, while she is nude, it was reasonably discreet. As a mother of three young children myself, I take your point about putting it behind the KidsPost page."

Ads with sexual content draw complaints. Lucy Cooney of the District wrote that one ad was "offensive beyond words. I am appalled." David Brown of Gaithersburg wrote about two more: "Am I the only reader getting sick of seeing all the ads, usually on Page A3 or A4 ( this morning both!) advertising 'better sex for life' ?"

Weymouth said that The Post's general policy "is to accept ads so long as the services being advertised are not illegal and do not seriously offend our sensibility as a family newspaper."

Complaints about two General Motors advertising supplements were mostly from the newsroom. The Sept. 20 and 28 sections were called "Your Environment: A Green Agenda" and included reprints of environmental stories by Post reporters. The section was a collaborative effort of GM and Post advertising executives, Weymouth said.

My jaw dropped at the first section's bylined Post articles and tag line: "This is a special advertising section placed by General Motors. All articles in this section originally appeared in The Washington Post and are used here with The Post's permission."

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