Media and Advertising

Truth in advertising comes to the personals section

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Gutter space in tabloid-format newspapers can be put to a variety of uses. Some papers print jokes and public service announcements, while others use it for classifieds. Papers with pretensions go for tasteful whitespace.

At left is a portion of the gutter between pages B38 and B51 of the Beijing Times for 21 March. This page has personal ads; other pages advertise jobs, downloadable ringtones, and drivers' ed businesses.

Taken individually, the ads are mostly what you'd expect: stylized, concisely-written pictures of single people looking for companionship. Pretty soon, however, you being to see a pattern (rough translations preserve the originals' punctuation but are necessarily more wordy than the SWF-like writing style found in Chinese personals):

- 20 Female 1.65m, Beijing unmarried, young & pretty, cute & open, lost both parents unexpectedly, grew up with grandfather from a young age, grandfather operates a clothing company and restaurant, grandfather now is very ill, it pains me to watch him work every day while sick, at grandfather's suggestion, I am seeking a boy who will sincerely help me run the business and sincerely care for me, I don't care what you are, we will take care of the business together, gift of car and house after engagement, I will take care of all wedding fees, those who can settle down, soldiers, and those who know how to drive are preferred. Urgent! Urgent! Urgent!

- 21 Female, 1.63m, Beijing unmarried, business family, abundant assets, gentle & sweet, lost both parents unexpectedly, no one to take charge of the building materials company they left behind, I struggle under the pain and pressure, seeking an honest and reliable boy, I don't care about your education, residency, or appearance, gift of car and house on engagement, soldiers and outsiders pursuing livelihood in Beijing are preferred.

- 23 1.63 Female, Beijing unmarried beautiful girl, parents sadly perished in a plane crash, leaving me and my younger sister to operate a restaurant and car dealership, substantial assets, I don't know management and often feel my ability is not up to my ambition, seeking an honest and steady-going boy, no matter rich or poor, outsiders willing to remain in Beijing preferred.

...well, you get the idea. Obviously, these people do not exist (I'm not opposed to being proven wrong — email's listed on the info page if you want me to manage your real estate business for you). Practically all of the ads are posted by matchmaking services, just as all of the 65 sq.m., 3d floor south-facing apartments asking 900 yuan a month are posted by shady agencies.

They prey on the less-informed — new arrivals to the city, in particular — with a hollow bait-and-switch. The goddess in the advertisement is no longer available, but a more realistic replacement is found, and the client is charged a fee for "information" which ultimately turns out to be useless: the woman has already found someone, or her phone number is no longer in service. As a guarantee of its professionalism, the agency promises to continue to search for a suitable mate for a year, but nothing ever materializes.

(Your correspondent pursued the real estate version of this scam to its conclusion, for educational purposes, or so he tells himself. It resulted in him being dropped off on the side of a road one evening with a non-working number scrawled on a Post-it note, out 300 yuan. The agency office led to thoughts of Spanish Prisoner-style con games, with shelves labeled with various Beijing districts stacked with scrap fax paper, strangely empty desks, and old-model telephones lacking wires — may have been a standard Beijing office, come to think of it.)

It's against this backdrop that the city of Xi'an has instituted new provisional regulations requiring that information in personals ads be true. A two-sentence Xinhua report says that the rules require marriage ads to be true, in accordance with the law, and civilized; they can only mention sex, age, height, occupation, education, marriage status, children, economic status, and housing situation of the inquirer, and descriptions are limited to yes or no. No absolute or exaggerated language is allowed.

In particular, "unhealthily alluring" phrases like "luxury car and luxurious house," "matchless beauty," "pure and loving girl," "charming woman," "rich middle-aged woman," "100% woman," and "marriage status unimportant" are prohibited.

This by itself will do nothing. Left out of most reports, however, is the fact that the new rules include a requirement that advertisements be made under the true name of the person placing them — agencies can no longer hide behind the pretty face of a young, rich orphan. Unfortunately, because of the strict language laws, real pretty-faced, young, rich orphans will no longer be able to trade on their advantages. But that's a small price to pay for an action that will completely defang unscrupulous matchmakers.

That's the thought, at any rate. As another set of regulations to be added to the stack of generally unheeded rules, it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to predict that nothing much will change in Xi'an. Still, you might want to think long and hard about whether you truly enjoy those long walks on the beach, or if you are merely using them to get some action.

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