The Players: Manhunt, a gay dating site founded in 2001 with over 6.5 million members and their new, racy, gay billboards; Kelly Cole, co-president of the Valley View elementary PTA who thinks those ads are too racy and gay.
The Opening Serve: Manhunt's recent ad campaign for the location-based dating app has hit billboards in Los Angeles. "Zero Feet Away" is the tagline, and it features two, shirtless, almost-kissing men. Manhunt says that the ad sparked dozens of complaints which began pouring into its Massachusetts headquarters, but one mom blogger pushed their ads to national attention. "I never thought this would be me: A liberal feminist complaining about a sex-positive, homosexual billboard. Like that would ever happen," begins Cole, a co-president of the Valley View Elementary PTA. "You try explaining the “Zero feet away MANHUNT MOBILE” phone application to your 9-year-old son. A 9-year-old who loves Army guys, and so noticed the dog tags right away." She explains it's not the "blatant porniness" or that the ad is gay-focused which bothers her:
It’s the fact that I am forced to figure out a way to frame to my fourth-grader the fact that some people like to find casual sex partners fast using their mobile phones...
I know I could have lied to my son, which I don’t typically condone, but honestly I couldn’t come up with a suitable story fast enough to fit that image and service. Still can’t. I know I should have a thicker skin, after a whole adult life in urban centers, and a career in media. I know I risk annoying some of my gay friends by drawing attention to it. I know I jeopardize my PC cred by letting the ad get under my skin.
But as I wrote to the executives who own and run the billboard company, Lamar Advertising:
“No matter what one's politics, religious beliefs, or moral compass says about this, does it not seem obvious that this ad is inappropriately placed when it becomes forced viewing for hundreds of children daily?”
The Return Volley: Studio City Patch, where Cole published her op-ed, is reporting that some billboards are coming down and a Manhunt spokeswoman said the ads expired earlier this month. Patch has a response from Manhunt and its advertising agency to Cole's column about the legality and placement of the advertisement. It reads, "Lamar [the ad agency] has taken a unified stance in defending our right, and theirs [Manhunt], to advertise this business on our billboards, provided they are not within 500′ of schools, churches, playgrounds, etc. ...So Manhunt was within the letter of the law, AND went the extra mile to make sure our ad was appropriately placed." Gawker's Brian Moylan, went a little further. "This writer is trying to paint herself as a liberal, sex-positive, feminist, but, guess what, the fact that the billboard depicts two men is the entire story here," wrote Moylan. "You say that you would hate it if it was hetero but, since we still live in a very heterosexist society, you wouldn't even notice it ... Most companies are too ashamed to put them up there because they're afraid of people like you, people who lose their fucking minds as soon as a kid might see a display of normal, natural adult homosexual sexual expression." Which brings us to another Manhunt point. On their official blog (NSFW) they point out that just a few blocks away, there's a Michael Kors billboard featuring a woman putting her hand down a half-naked male model's underwear. "No, we don’t have any evidence that there weren’t any complaints to Michael Kors, his ad agency, or to LA political officials. But we highly doubt that several media outlets approached them like they did us. Because, for some reason, gay sexuality is still scary and controversial for many people."
What They Say They're Fighting About: Homophobia. Cole consciously and quickly denies she's homophobic and points out that her complaint pains her since she's "sex-positive, liberal feminist." She's also very aware that her opinion could be construed that way, noting out loud that she's afraid of hurting her "PC cred" and "annoying her gay friends." Moylan and Manhunt are on the same page. Cole may not be engaging in the blatant hate speech of Westboro Baptist Church, but she's still being intolerant of gay rights. Manhunt, thinks it's being unfairly attacked for depicting gay relationships since the Michael Kors billboard is just as, if not more, racy without the controversy.
What They're Really Fighting About: Business. At the end of the day, Manhunt is selling a product. It's a company, it has no feelings, and its best interest is making money. And it seems they went out of their way to comply with rules to get their advertisement posted. What's driving their fight for equality here is that these complaints, especially when they garner attention, have the possibility of making it even more difficult for Manhunt to sell their product, their website, and their advertisements if they're going to face unequal and unfair adversity compared to their heterosexual competitors and counterparts.
Who's Winning Now: Manhunt. Any publicity is good publicity, and publicity is even better if your ads are in the process of coming down. And granted, this outcome would be a little different if the ad went up in a tiny town rather than a metropolis like Los Angeles, but even then Manhunt did its homework by abiding to a 500-foot rule. So where exactly is the op-ed slamming the Michael Kors ad that's a few blocks away? It's hard to see a difference between the two, and if anything, a woman preparing to fondle her shirtless partner seems a bit racier than two shirtless men non-kissing. Instead of providing an argument that racy ads, regardless of sexual orientation aren't child-appropriate, it seems like Cole (to her own detriment) and the rest of the complaints are singling Manhunt out. Cole does make a point about that it's the "casual sex" angle of the ad, possibly lying to her child and how she had to explain it to her child that bothers her, but it brings into question if Cole has the same thorough explanation with her son in regards to the racy Michael Kors ad up the street or ads depicting cheeseburgers, cigarettes, and alcohol, or her son's love of the army (read: wars and war casualties) which are all arguably more dangerous than two strangers, who aren't your son, having casual sex. If so, then props to Cole, but even more for her son for having to hear such depressing and awkward stories.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.