COMPANIONSHIP IN THE CLASSIFIEDS:
THE ADOPTION OF PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY
Debra L. Merskin
University of Oregon
COMPANIONSHIP IN THE CLASSIFIEDS: THE ADOPTION OF
PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY DAILY NEWSPAPERS
This study investigates advertising for romantic partners in the daily
newspaper. A telephone survey of U.S. daily newspapers shows
mate-finding is becoming a matter of mediated information, suggesting
function for the media. Media dependency theory predicts that individuals
will tend to turn to the mass media for this information. The adoption of
innovation model explains the process needed to do so.
COMPANIONSHIP IN THE CLASSIFIEDS: THE ADOPTION OF PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS
BY DAILY NEWSPAPERS
Finding a romantic partner is an age-old process. In modern times,
finding a partner has become complicated by urbanization and social and
geographic mobility. This has resulted in a loss of personal contacts
locating and identifying eligible others. Consequently, many singles
turned to less personal means of securing a partner.
Today, opportunities for meeting others can be found in the daily
newspaper. This medium is relied upon as a source of many kinds of
important information, such as identifying employment opportunities,
locating housing, and now, finding a partner. This change from
means of securing a partner in the United States suggests that mass media
serve a new function--that of interpersonal intermediary.
Few studies have looked at dependency on the mass media as a part of
everyday life. This study suggests that media dependency theory predicts
the use of the mass media for mate-seeking, in the absence of other
personal sources of information. A telephone survey was conducted
67 metropolitan daily newspapers. The findings describe how daily
newspapers have responded to readers needs by adding personal
advertisements to their repertoire of features.
Clearly, whatever form courtship, betrothal and marriage take within
different cultures, their function is to mark the passage from one status
to another, such as from youth to maturity, outsideness to belonging,
aloneness to companionship. The importance of marriage changes as
societies become increasingly industrialized, urbanized and modernized.
Searching for Companionship.
Methods of mate-seeking vary by culture. In many cases, parents select
partners for their children. For example, in traditional Arab
systems of infant betrothal and cross-cousin marriage are not uncommon
In traditional/tribal societies, such as that of the Trobriand
partner selection is left largely to the whims of youth. According to
Malinowski, young persons in this society cohabitate to find compatible
partners. Among the Yanomama Indians of the Amazon, securing wives is
often accomplished through acquisitions of women by force from other
In many societies, the role of matchmaker is important. Japan has a
particularly long tradition of matchmaking, facilitated by an individual
known as the nakado. The nakado is responsible for introducing
prospective partners to one another, for carrying on background
investigations, and for officiating at the marriage ceremony. According to
Dore, the arranged marriage (miai-kekkon) means that the parties have been
brought together expressly to be married on the initiative of parents, a
friend of the family or by way of a go-between. Evidence that
is still in use was the 1993 marriage of Japan's Prince Naruhito to Masako
Another well-known example of the arranged marriage can be found in Jewish
culture. Marriage is one of the most important milestones in the lives of
Jewish men and women. A matchmaker (shadkan) often arranges meetings
between young people. Popular portrayals, such as in the film Crossing
Delancey and in plays such as Fiddler on the Roof and Hello, Dolly!,
the duties of this individual.
Throughout the world, drastic changes have been taking place in the ways
in which people select mates. Some say that parental involvement is
declining, or even extinct, and that individual choice is an increasingly
preferred method of finding a partner. According to Murstein, factors
related to the rise of self-selection are urban living,
changes in religion, declining influence of parental control, and
The Role of the Mass Media
Changes in mate-selection are related to changes in society. One of the
most important changes to society in the last 200 years has been
industrialization. Several 19th century theorists anticipated
industrialization and predicted that this process would have a variety
effects on society. According to Comte, as specialized functions
ineffective social organizations fail to provide adequate linkages between
people, the individual becomes isolated from others. Social groups begin
to play a lesser role, leading eventually to the notion of the "lonely
crowd," which is identified by feelings of isolation, loneliness, and
Spencer suggested that specialization is a natural, evolutionary outgrowth
of industrial society and that "society undergoes continuous growth." As
society grows, its parts become dissimilar.  T nnies' theory of
bonds portrayed a pre-industrial society existing in a state of
"Gemeinschaft," of "reciprocal binding sentiment." This condition would be
replaced by an industrial society called "Gesellschaft," characterized
by "reciprocal binding contract." This later stage was described as
featuring impersonality, anonymity, social distance, distrust and
isolation. The accompanying division of labor would also increase social
Durkheim suggested that society would thrive on specialization, but
concurred with his peers that there would be social consequences.
Suggesting that the conditions of solidarity would vary, Durkheim proposed
that the division of labor that produces solidarity would increase
individuality. As a result, the individual in such a mass society
subject to psychological isolation, reduced effective interpersonal
communication, an increase in confusion and ambivalence--a state called
anomie. Individuals become confused about how to interact with
around them and close and intimate ties between people are reduced.
lessens influences from interpersonal communication and leaves the
individual more vulnerable to influences from other sources such as the
A theory that incorporates the mass society concept is media dependency
theory. This theory suggests that as a society becomes more
there are fewer traditional, interpersonal routes available to
for solving problems, they tend to turn to the mass media for that
information. DeFleur defines dependency as "a relationship in which
satisfaction of needs or the attainment of goals by one party is
upon the resources of another party."
Media dependency can be defined as "a relationship in which the capacity
of individuals to attain their goals is contingent upon the
resources of the media system." The basic propositions of the
that people in all societies need information to make numerous
about political affairs, to obtain food, shelter and transportation
find a mate. In traditional societies, people tend to pursue similar
of life and are linked by word-of-mouth networks of extended families,
long-term neighbors and other channels from which they obtain the
information they need. In urban-industrial societies, dissimilar
populations are brought together, despite differences in ethnicity,
occupational specialization, and economic class. Because of this social
differentiation, there is a weakening of effective word-of-mouth
based on deeply established social ties through which people can
information they need in daily life. Therefore, people in these societies
become dependent upon mass communications for information needed to make
In a modern urban-industrial society, such as in the United States,
the media system is part of the social fabric. The key relationships
are based on dependency, which may be with the entire media system or
with a particular medium, such as television or newspapers. According
to Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur, as the quality of the media improve
technologically, the media assume more and more unique information
functions. These functions include the gathering, processing and
delivery of information. Lasswell wrote in 1948 that the media
three functions within American society: (1) surveillance of the
environment, (2) correlation of the parts of society responding to the
environment, and (3) transmission of the social heritage from one
generation to the next. Wright added a fourth function to this
array, entertainment. As changes in society have occurred along
industrialization, such as increases in social conflict and social
change, individuals rely on the mass media to reduce resultant
feelings of ambiguity. The media provide new methods of answering
questions associated with the problems of daily life. This has
occurred before in newspapers, when features such as advertising,
entertainment, gossip, political analysis, comics and advice columns
arose to usurp such functions previously fulfilled through interp
Mate Finding in Modern Society
A successful life in a complex society requires that individuals rely upon
others to attain both personal and collective goals. Traditionally,
channels of communication have been based on interpersonal relationships
is found between parent and child, neighbor and neighbor, clergy and
parishioner, or teacher and student. The concept of opinion leadership
related to these interactions. Individuals tend to seek out others
they feel are knowledgeable about particular topics. Lazarsfeld et
suggested that ordinary people identify with people who are (1)
knowledgeable, (2) trustworthy, (3) available, and (4) acceptable. A
person interested in finding a mate might analyze where they could find
necessary information to meet someone. He or she may ask a neighbor; his
or her mother or father may invite someone to dinner; two people might
meet in church.
Up until recently, such informal methods have been sufficient. However,
several changes in society have led to the break-up of traditional
patterns: (1) families have become disrupted, (2) people have become
increasingly geographically mobile, (3) society has become increasingly
racially and ethnically diverse, and (4) society has become
specialized in its occupational roles and social status. Therefore,
become more difficult to breach barriers to interpersonal interaction.
According to Schudson, relationships with people who helped socialize
individual have become weakened.
The rules, norms, attitudes, and behaviors that to the child seemed
natural, seem foreign to the adult who has moved away. What was
internalized is now seen as external, arbitrary, even alien. The
individual is separated from the past. Therefore, they tend to
more and more on the mass media to serve these needs and a
Some methods for locating romantic partners, such as singles bars, have
become unacceptable to many. This is due, at least in part, to
concerns over sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, limits on
time, and decreasing acceptance of social drinking. For many years
advertising for companionship carried a similar stigma--"a discrediting
attribute" that suggested desperate and even deviate behavior..
ads have historically had a seedy image, mainly due to their
with the alternative press such as the Village Voice and the Berkeley
According to the Chicago Tribune:
The increased volume [of personal ads] is in part a measure of the
increasing respectability of finding a date through ads or
No longer reserved for seedy types looking for one ([or] two or
kindred spirits for some kinky fun, everyone from church-going single
mothers to university professors are signing up.
Even today some stigma remains. Several recent movies and television
dramas have stressed that finding companions through ads is dangerous.
example, in the film Sea of Love, Al Pacino portrays a police officer
investigating the murders of men who advertised in the personal
1993 made-for-television movie (Dying to Love You) describes the story
woman who uses personal ads to lure wealthy male companions whom she would
murder for their money.
THE RESEARCH PROBLEM
This study investigates the presence of media dependency in everyday life.
Media dependency theory predicts that as traditional systems of
mate-finding became inadequate in a mass society, the media will take on
that role as it becomes socially acceptable. Previous studies on
dependency theory have focused primarily on quasi-experimental
in which dependence on the media was measured under circumstances of
natural disasters. For example, Hirshburg, et al.., found that the media
were the primary information source used by persons at the 1980 Mount
Helens volcano eruption and that individuals continued to rely on the
media to reduce feelings of ambiguity associated with the
Donlon and Roush studied the tendency for people to turn to the media
during the 1986 U.S. attack on Libya. A dependency theory framework
used by Nigg to describe the seeking of earthquake forecasting
from the media. In their study of the mass media in earthquake
Turner and Paz found low reliance on interpersonal channels consistent
media dependency theory.
In the Great American Values Test, Ball-Rokeach, et al.., found that
television was implicated in all of the dependency types and that
even a small amount of television could alter beliefs, related
and behavior. Grant, et al.. discovered that genre dependency
central role in television shopping behavior. Becker and Whitney
demonstrated that individuals can become dependent on a particular medium
for information and that people who are dependent upon different media
to have different views of the world. Champaigne-Alman discovered that
foreign-born individuals who immigrate to the U.S. tend to rely on the
media of the host culture, particularly television, and tend to use that
media before arrival.
Other researchers have also drawn upon media dependency theory under
experimental conditions. Miller and Reese found that the more an
individual depends on a particular medium, the more likely it is that a
message contained within that medium will have its intended effect.
Gaziano's study of dependency stressed that individuals are located in
specific social environments. The researcher found evidence that
depend on media other than television and that dependence might be
factor of lifestyles and social roles.
To date, little research has focused on the presence of media dependence
in everyday life. Previous studies have focused on media dependency
context of natural disasters, under conditions of migration, or under
specific conditions such as concerns over politics or health. This
examines media dependency as a naturally occurring phenomenon under
conditions present in industrial society.
Adoption of Personals
Media dependency theory stresses the tripartite relationship of media,
audience and society. Media dependency is bi-directional. Just as
individuals become increasingly reliant on the media, the media also rely
on society. The media, therefore, have to adapt to perceived needs
interests of their audience.
Rogers' adoption of innovation model suggests that ideas, practices or
objects which are perceived as new are selected and used as the best
available. The adoption of innovations in modern society suggests
choices which help to solve the problems of daily life for individuals and
organizations. Previous studies have shown that the adoption of an
innovation follows an S-shaped cumulative curve. The reason for the
S-shaped curve is based upon the role of information and uncertainty
reduction. Adopter categories can be set forth as ideal types on an
innovativeness continuum. The types are innovators, early adopters, early
majority, late majority and laggards. In all of these categories,
leadership plays an important role.
Although discussion of the adoption of innovations tends to focus
primarily on the individual, organizations also adopt. Examples include
computerization of government offices, computerized photographic feeds
newspapers, and technology in schools.
As well as being a sign of changing lifestyles, personal advertisements
that use voice mail also represent the adoption of a technological
innovation for the newspaper industry. These ads are a new function for
the daily press, evolving out of people's basic information needs. As
individuals in a mass society come to rely on the media for the
they need, the media will respond by redefining themselves through the
adoption of new communications technologies. The adoption of personal
advertisements to the repertoire of products featured in the evolving
press, newspapers have had to face questions about the proper role of the
newspaper in a changing society. Just as the conditions of industrial
society suggest that individuals will turn to the mass media for
information, adoption of innovation provides an explanation of how this
takes place in the newspaper industry.
Few studies have investigated personal advertisements from a mass
communications or theory-oriented perspective. Previous research has come
primarily from the disciplines of family studies, sociology, and, to a
lesser extent, marketing. Studies have focused on physical appearance
advertisers and partners, age, deviance, psychological
differences, stereotyping, a marketing perspective, and
This study is not a formal test of either dependency or adoption theory.
Rather, these theories serve as general frameworks suggesting that: (1)
the use of personal advertisements will spread because of the
function, and (2) newspapers' adoption of personal advertisements will
follow an s-shaped curve similar to the diffusion of many other
Two research questions were posited with respect to each theoretical
perspective: (1) To what extent have newspapers actually begun to
personal advertisements? and (2) What pattern did the adoptions follow
time? Additional information was sought about the reasons newspapers have
added the ads, methods of responding to the ads, and the physical
characteristics of this section of the newspaper.
A telephone survey was conducted to measure the extent of the adoption of
personal advertisements by daily newspapers. The sampling frame
of 268 newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or more as listed in
Publisher Yearbook, 1991. A random sample of 67 newspapers was drawn
using the systematic skip interval method.
From November 1992 to May 1993, classified managers were interviewed at
each of the 67 newspapers. A 100 percent response rate was achieved.
newspaper managers were called during regular business hours,
mid-afternoon when pressure from deadlines was less likely to
Occasionally, reaching the right person to interview was difficult.
California paper, the interviewer was connected with seven different
before finally reaching the appropriate person. Approximately two to
three calls were necessary to complete each interview. Two newspapers
refused to answer the questions by phone but did reply via fax. These
representatives were asked questions, following a ten-item
about whether or not the newspaper was running voice personals and if
the year of adoption. Additional questions addressed any criteria
accepting or rejecting ads, such as those from gays/lesbians or
"alternative lifestyle" ads. Other questions concerned the mechanics of
the ads, the days of the week the ads were run, how responses were
the ads, what costs were involved and how responses were made. A
was requested from each paper to verify these replies.
Nearly four out of five (55) of the newspapers were carrying personal
advertisements, as Table 1 shows. An additional 11 percent of the
said they had plans to add the personals within the next few months.
newspapers were not carrying dating ads, nor did they indicate having
plans for doing so.
NEWSPAPER ADOPTION OF THE PERSONALS
Carries 55 82.1
Plans to add 7 10.4
No plans to carry 5 7.5
Table 2 shows nearly two-thirds of the newspapers began running the ads
between 1991 and May of 1993.
YEAR OF ADOPTION OF THE PERSONALS
Year Frequency Percent Cumulative Percent
1993 6 10.9 100
1992 21 38.1 89.1
1991 17 30.9 50.9
1990 6 10.9 20.0
1989 1 1.8 9.1
1988 1 1.8 7.3
1987 3 5.5 5.5
Total 55 100.0
Figure 1 shows that the cumulative diffusion curve follows a classic
OF PERSONAL ADVERTISEMENTS BY NEWSPAPERS
1987 - 1993
More than one third of personal ads sections (36 percent) occupied
one-half to one page of space. Another third of the papers filled 1 to 2
pages. Two newspapers (3 percent) had personal ads sections of three
or larger while the remainder of the papers had sections of one-half a
page or less. Nearly two-thirds of the newspapers ran the personals in
full-sized section of the newspaper while a smaller percentage
the personals in tabloid inserts.
More than a third of the dailies (36 percent) ran the ads on Fridays,
Saturdays and/or Sundays. Approximately 27 percent of the papers ran
ads on some combination of weekdays and about a quarter of the papers
the ads seven days per week. A few papers had other arrangements.
Newspapers also varied in the types of advertisements they would accept.
As Table 3 reveals, more than half (59.7 percent) would not accept
ads. Most (80.6 percent) would not accept "alternative lifestyle" ads,
such as those seeking multiple partners or more exotic variations.
More than two-thirds of the newspapers applied their own criteria to
screening the language of the ads while 22 percent relied on a voice mail
service to perform this task.
Accepts gay ads 27 40.3*
Does not accept gay ads 40 59.7
Accepts alternative lifestyle ads 13 19.4
Does not accept alternative lifestyle 54 80.6
* Newspapers may have a combination of these policies, totals therefore do not
Voice mail was found to be the most common method of responding to
personals (79 percent). Only nine papers offered the more traditional way
of responding, which is by letter only (13.4 percent). Frequently,
daily newspaper was not the only local publication carrying the
Two-thirds of the papers surveyed had competition from another local paper
for personal advertisers (66 percent).
Although most of the newspapers surveyed would not reveal detailed
financial information, almost half of the papers indicated that the ads had
been a financial success. According to one manager, the paper receives
approximately 300 ads per month and that the average time spent
is 3 minutes at a cost of $1.95 per minute. Even if the advertiser's
free, each ad generates approximately $108. This would result in revenues
of over $30,000 per month or roughly $400,000 per year. Another paper
indicated that their take was over $500,000 during the same period.
amount of revenue generated is likely to vary with market size,
efforts, and amount of repeat business.
Many papers have invested in their own voice mail hardware. Others rely
on vendors. The financial success of the personals has been a selling
point for the many voice mail vendors involved in the personal ads
business. Although this study did not specifically investigate the
involvement of vendors, many representatives mentioned that the work load
(and the revenue) are shared with a vendor. Often, these companies
the advertising placement, response retrieval, and reply process.
vendors represent more than one newspaper. Compensation arrangements
For example, one newspaper representative indicated her paper takes 90
percent of the revenue generated from the ads and the vendor retains
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
The findings suggest that the increasing trend of personal ad use by both
newspapers and individuals is a result of changing social and cultural
conditions in modern society. As traditional ways in which people can
and locate others who can fulfill their social and sexual needs decline,
the media--and especially the classified section of the daily
newspaper--take on this important function. According to Adelman and
Aaron, the aim of personal advertising is to expand the number of
others, whether in print, by computer, or through dating services. As
result, individuals frequently use the mass media to position the
search as a consumer activity.
Daily newspapers' adoption of these ads begins with, but goes beyond, the
need to raise revenue. At an increasing rate, daily newspapers are
carrying these "self"-advertisements in the classified section of the paper
as a response to the perceived needs of their subscribers at a time when
targeting sections of the paper to appeal to the interests of an
increasingly fragmented audience is mandatory for financial survival.
Among the newspapers surveyed, three primary reasons were given for adding
personal ads: (1) revenue, (2) readership, and (3) service. Voice
personal advertisements also represent newspaper industry experiments with
innovations. Also, the public's information needs are changing.
Newspapers face stiff competition from television, particularly for the
attention of young people. Many of the newspapers surveyed have
the personals to attract this younger audience. This has not been the
case--the most frequent users of personal ads are women over the age of
Yet the inclusion of personals in the daily paper has appealed to a wider
group of users--those who simply enjoy reading the ads for entertainment.
These folks aren't necessarily seeking a dating partner but enjoy reading
this part of the paper as "breakfast table voyeurs."
This study demonstrates that daily newspapers have adopted the personals
widely, recently and rapidly. Among the dailies studied, 82 percent
carrying the ads and most had adopted them within the last three
The adoption followed the s-shaped diffusion curve, as predicted by
Not all of the dailies surveyed (8 percent) were carrying the personals.
Representatives of these newspapers provided several reasons for this
decision. One individual indicated that since the newspaper had
a recent ownership change, the new owners had discontinued them,
the personals were not "in good taste". He further stated that the
image "is that of a small family newspaper and the newspaper owners felt
the information in those ads did not mesh with their image."
paper worried about "protecting the reader" from "this kind of thing".
individual felt that meeting others is a "private matter," inappropriate
for the press. This same individual did point out that her paper is
starting to recognize that "lifestyles have changed and it (personal ads)
is a valuable service, but we are responsible first to our readers,
This study explored the adoption of personal advertisements by daily
newspapers. The use of personal advertisements by individuals for dating
is predicted by media dependency theory. As society continues to
more complex, and individuals become more isolated, methods of finding
partners will further become the responsibility of the individual and
less concern to the family. Therefore, as traditional mechanisms for
partner selection continue to drift away, men and women will turn to the
mass media to seek eligible others. Faced with real financial
daily press will respond in kind by providing this service to readers as
well as creating a new revenue base for itself. The pattern of
the ads by daily newspapers can be predicted by the adoption of innovation
As societies become more urbanized, modernized, and industrialized ( i.e.,
more complex), the individual is less able to rely on sources of
information for assistance in answering important questions and making life
decisions. With many roots to the past essentially severed, people become
more dependent on those around them. If these other people are unfamiliar
or unapproachable, the individual is more likely to identify with that
which is familiar: the media. Together this information provides
for proposing a fifth function of the media--a dependency function of
interpersonal intermediary. In this role the media act as agents
individuals in the absence of traditional informal sources of
Severin and Tankard suggest that the media dependency model may provide a
synthesizing framework within which other theories can be understood,
including cultivation and agenda-setting. Research has also
that dependency on the media may depend upon that individual's
the social system. Future studies could explore this possibility.
Research could also explore the changing role of the daily press, the
organizational adoption of innovation process, the legal implications of
advertising acceptance criteria and the gay community, how the media
respond to social change, and the relationship of the media to the
audience. In addition, survey research could be conducted with those that
place personal ads. This study suggests that personal advertisements
rich source of information about people and what they are looking for in a
partner as well as offering a source of documentation of social change.
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