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When any publicity is good publicity

At first glance, Howie Hartnett's job might seem alluring; after all, it involves sex.

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 18, 2005

 Howie Hartnett has the daunting challenge of getting media outlets to produce stories on a topic that usually raises red flags.

Like a lot of PR calls, this one started with, "Are you on deadline?" But after a couple of minutes it became clear this wasn't the usual pitch.

We started typing to record the poor guy's frustration, and because it would make the story easier to retell when we shared it with colleagues later.

Howie Hartnett, who grew up in Bradenton, has the unfortunate job of trying to get mainstream newspapers and magazines to do stories on the Better Sex Video Series: Sexplorations, which features real couples having sex and experts talking about it.

What the heck. Here is his pitch, edited for length and for taste:

I had to watch some of the competitor sex videos. It was brutal stuff. I had to watch Nina Hartley's guide. . . . It was Nina Hartley on a couch with one light bulb. It's a strange world.

This series is an update to one they did about 15 years ago: the Better Sex Video Series. They had hairy chests, mustaches, mullets. It got a lot of play. This one looks a lot better. They use split screens. They have tattoos. They look more like, you know, people do today.

Are they attractive? Would you want to look at them?

Most of them. Even though I don't have a tattoo. It's not a bunch of pasty-faced paunch guys.

The reason why this is a story is Americans more and more are looking for credible sources of sex education. We did a study, and 70 percent of Americans are not satisfied with their sex lives. Thirty-seven percent of adults over 30 have sex 12 times per year. One to 2 percent said never. They're getting sex toys. They're still doing it on airplanes. Which I didn't know you could do. So on the tapes they do something about airplanes.

A how-to?


This is your job?

Yeah. We did have to go to some lingerie shops to get a feel for what's in there. The more disturbing thing is I've had to go to Borders and buy Playgirl to see what's in there, to pitch to men's magazines. I have to admit this. I got two piles of magazines. I got the New Yorker and paid for them separately. To give the impression I was not just a sleaze ball.

Where did you watch these?

At work and at home. At the time, our office was sharing space with a financial services firm. So you had accountants walking around. We went into one of the offices and put some stuff up over the windows and turned the sound down. Then I was watching it at home with a note pad. My wife comes home and wonders what in the hell I am doing. I did learn some stuff.

Like what?

At the end they have experts talking about relationships, things you can do when communication breaks down.

Sex is a form of communication.

One of the oldest.

What's the difference between this and porn?

Well, young lady, have you ever seen a porno?

I'm thinking about how I want to answer that.

Well, you ain't going to confuse these people with Jenna Jameson.

Who's Jenna Jameson?

I mean they aren't porn stars. They're married. Well, okay, there is one porn star.

It doesn't begin to have plot. There's a host. There's a chapter on anatomy. Foreplay. Kissing. Positions. Vignettes. Role-playing is big. A couple going through a carwash. A public bathroom.

And it's instructional? As in, if you want to do it in a bathroom, here's where you put your feet?

A little bit, yeah. Then there's a scene on a boat. They cover it from different angles. It's a full service thing.

Is there music? Like boom chicka wah-wah music?

There is. You can buy the CD.

What would you do with it?

Well, if you don't know that, then I don't know what to say.

But you can't get newspapers to write about these videos? Go figure.

The usual reaction is sort of between shock and awe. Like, oh, uh, no, that's not something we will cover. The big newspapers are so byzantine in their structure. A lot of people try to pass the buck. They say, "I don't really do that. Maybe somebody else in features." At the Palm Beach Post, I was told point blank, "We are far too stodgy." We might talk to TV, but the visuals can quickly get out of hand.

What is the bravest newspaper out there?

I'm hoping to say the St. Petersburg Times. I want to say, "Look, Mom, I'm in the newspaper we read growing up." She still lives in Bradenton. I'd be so proud. You're my best hope. I've read your stories.

Our client wants to see coverage, and sex is not the easiest thing to sell to mainstream papers. Sex sells, except when you are trying to sell sex.

So, maybe it's a story about a frustrated PR guy having to sell an unsellable story about sex videos.

Whatever. It's something.

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or

[Last modified December 15, 2005, 11:30:07]

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