A paradox of illegal legality
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Research on sex-related services advertising has explored to some extent their legality, but not compliance of their promotional tools with media clearance policies. As a result, many illegal offers are advertised by legal means. Exploring the landscape of online escort personals in the United States, this study investigates the correspondence of their content to the U.S. penal codes and online media's clearance. Although frequently associated with controversial products and transformational advertising, research on sexual appeal has largely ignored escort services. This study examines how sexual appeal alongside informational and transformational appeals construct online personals for escort services as a repository of constantly contested economic, social, and legal relationships. This study conducted a content analysis of 4,956 online personals published in a one-year period (July 2011- June 2012) in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco within the "escorts" section on Backpage, the most profitable online classifieds for escort services in 2012. By systematically examining the promotion of escort services, this study offers the coding framework for objective analysis of controversial services advertising. Based on the results, the present study develops indicators for legality, clearance compliance, and professionalism, which provide insights to understanding the reasons for the success of online personals. This study found that posters primarily adhered to media clearance and U.S. penal codes, with the exception of publishing photos of minors. Posters relied on self-censorship/cropping techniques to conceal their identities. Differences by geographic location were evident with examining poster race and escort service availability to members of other racial groups. Personals exhibiting features of legality and clearance compliance as well as legality and professionalism relied more on informational than transformational cues, with the exception of personals posted on behalf of the providers that contained disclaimers and prices, while featuring minors clothed in a sexually-revealing manner. Personals exhibiting features of clearance compliance and professionalism relied more on transformational than informational cues, with the exception of personals that employed techniques of self-censorship or cropping. Implications are presented, followed by future research recommendations for advancing research on legality and clearance compliance of escort services advertising, as well as professionalism in the industry for sex-related services.