Two months ago, Jeff Haynie received a call from a former client for whom he scheduled commercials when he was a senior account executive at Comcast. The client, Surprise Parties, wanted Haynie to buy a large block of billboards across the United States for the 18-year-old Mt. Juliet company, one of a handful of corporations offering erotic products, sold at house parties, similar to those found at downtown sex shops—everything from lingerie to lubricants to double-ended dildos.
The female-only parties were introduced about two decades ago, but Surprise Parties’ management team only recently saw an opportunity to ratchet up the business. The company wants to turn its senior management team, seven working mothers, into the Dr. Phils and Dr. Ruths of the sex-toy party circuit, which has become the new Tupperware. Billboard advertising, which has made a huge comeback in the last year, was supposed to be a key component in turning Sue Rhea, president of Surprise Parties, into Dr. Sue.
The ad the company decided to place on the billboards shows the seven senior managers—all of them dressed in pink except Rhea, who dons white—somehow managing to look maternal and professional at the same time. On one side of the ad is a gift bag loaded with containers suggesting softness and sweetness. Pink rose petals litter the background. Above the seven women is Surprise Parties’ tagline, “Stop Faking it!” The innocuous ad contains nary a hint of sex, profanity or gender bending.
Jeff Haynie, who opened a Nashville office of the Carr Knowledge ad agency in March, nonetheless had problems placing it—obstacles he didn’t encounter in any of the other 41 states, and two provinces in Canada, where he bought ad space. He called the third-largest billboard company in America, Lamar Advertising, thinking the Baton Rouge-based company wouldn’t mind handling something slightly risqué. One of Lamar’s clients, after all, is the Hooters restaurant chain, with its not-so-subtle reliance on female breasts, disguised as owl eyes, for a marketing icon.
Lamar’s regional salesman took Haynie’s pitch and almost immediately returned with an answer. Not interested. The initial feedback was that Lamar didn’t like the Surprise Parties name. The sales rep later amended the complaint, saying Lamar didn’t like the “Stop Faking it!” line.
Haynie next tried Viacom Outdoors, whose parent company owns MTV, a channel known for randy kids dancing half-naked during spring break and same-sex kissing on shows like The Real World. Haynie signed a six-month contract with Viacom worth $20,000, he says, for 20 billboards around the Nashville Metro area. Last week, a Viacom salesman called back to say the deal was off.
“He said his boss changed his mind and didn’t want to do it,” says Haynie, who also approached and was rejected by The Tennessean when he wanted to place banner ads on the daily’s website. The ad was deemed “too controversial.” (Scene sales reps say they have been in contact with Haynie and are willing to run the ad, though a deal has yet to be inked.)
Lamar and Viacom representatives either didn’t return phone calls or transferred calls to their corporate offices, which failed to respond to Scene requests for an interview. It isn’t uncommon, though, for local billboard reps, as opposed to national account executives, to be given wide latitude to reject ads based on community standards. But typically the standards revolve around profanity, alcohol or adult content.
Community standards obviously vary from region to region. Los Angeles isn’t Topeka by any stretch of the imagination. Even so, Haynie, a 44-year-old Nashville native, had hoped his hometown could be more closely aligned with the nation’s more cosmopolitan areas. When he discussed the Surprise Parties placement issue at a convention of ad reps several weeks ago, they laughed at how backward the Bible Belt can be. “I’m proud to be from here,” Haynie says, “but when stuff like this happens, it underlines the stereotype.”
At least Nashville isn’t Burleson, Texas, a suburb of Ft. Worth. Three years ago, Joanne Webb, a fifth-grade teacher and board member of the Burleson Chamber of Commerce, was arrested for selling obscene devices at a gathering sponsored by Passion Parties, a rival of Surprise Parties. According to Texas law, Webb could sell devices that stimulate the human genitals if they were considered a gag gift. Unfortunately for Webb, she showed her clientele, two of whom turned out to be undercover cops, how to use “romance enhancers.” Charges against her were eventually dropped, however, when Burleson became the in-joke of the national media.
Vibrators, it seems, are the sticky wicket in the sex-toy party circuit—in fact, Tennessee lawmakers recently tried to make their use illegal. Surprise Parties managers are sensitive to the subject, not wanting to be labeled in the same breath as sex-shop merchants. “In some people’s minds, that’s true,” says Donna Wittrig, a Surprise Parties vice president who has worked for the company 16 years. “But that’s not what it’s all about.”
What it’s all about, Wittrig says, is helping women to take a “Stand by Your Man” approach to romance. Everything Surprise Parties sells is designed to bring women, specifically married women, closer to the partner from whom they’ve drifted away, at least romantically. At a recent regional management meeting, Wittrig asked reps whether they knew women with children who’d never had an orgasm. Tragically, every woman in the room raised her hand, Wittrig says.
That in itself was bad enough, she goes on to say, but failed intimacy also has led to unintended consequences like faked orgasms, bad sex and broken marriages. “If you’re mercy faking, you’re lying to your partner,” Wittrig says. “No one should do that because you’re teaching bad technique. He’s thinking, ‘I should do that again’ because he thinks you responded to him. You don’t lie with your mouth and you don’t lie with your pelvis.”
Wittrig says she wouldn’t have a problem driving past a Surprise Parties billboard with her 3-year-old daughter. But she would take issue explaining a Hooters or Victoria’s Secret ad. “I don’t see any chicken wings on a Hooters billboard. And we’re not selling breast augmentation. I mean, come on, what are we, Neanderthals?”
On the other hand, the Surprise Parties story does seem like it’s moving toward a happy ending. Early this week, Haynie was finalizing negotiations with yet another billboard company that might place the Surprise Parties ad. “I never planned this in my wildest dreams,” Haynie says. “It’s bullshit—the hypocrisy of it all.” Even so, he couldn’t help relishing the fact that highlighting outdated social mores often enhances a company’s bottom line. “The more they ban the Surprise Parties ads here, the better off we’ll be.”