On page 17 of this week's Xtra (Toronto's Gay & Lesbian News) is one of the strangest ads I have ever seen.
Occupying an entire page, it consists of 2,072 words in dense, 7-pt type, wrapped around a photo of its author in a jester costume. It is less promotional than didactic in nature. And it lays out an unusual challenge for Mayor Rob Ford's supporters and detractors, who are asked to cast votes on his merit via a website that donates rice to poor countries through the United Nations' World Food Programme.
(My partner, it should be noted as close to the top of this post as possible, works as a news reporter for Xtra, and I am friends with others who work there.)
The text begins:
Mr. Mayor, I'm a fat, balding, openly proud faggot with a bum knee and a cane - quite probably your worst nightmare come to life before your eyes.
My name is Harold B. Desmarais.
I had planned to make my challenge standing in Nathan Phillips Square on the morning of Friday, June 21st. However, the police arrived at my door at 8:21 a.m. and escorted me to St. Michael's Hospital where I was to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. It seemed that I was having a "manic episode". St. Michael's kept me for 76 hours and then released me about 1:38 p.m. on Monday, June 24th.
On Tuesday, I was determined to carry on with my plan. I got dressed in my "Jester" outfit, took my bullhorn, leaflets and other paraphernalia and went to Nathan Phillips Square. I was greeted by an offensive rent-a-cop security guard who told me that I shouldn't be dressed "like that" and that I had no right to speak.
(Emphasis in original.)
He goes on to explain, "Denied my first choice venue, I have decided to use the printed word even though it can't clearly demonstrate the intensity and the passion of my feelings." Through the liberal use of underlining, capitals, bolded type and exclamation points, however, he makes an effort. Also deployed are quotes from The Big Bang Theory, Network, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Popeye.
Eventually, the Challenge to Mayor Rob Ford is explained:
On July 11th Harold challenges the Mayor, and presents his plan to use Freerice to express the feelings of the voters. For the next 36 days, people will have the opportunity to make their feelings known by "voting with rice".
Every grain of rice will be a vote for or against the idea that the Mayor should resign. The more grains that you earn the more votes for your side of the issue. If you have very strong feelings about this issue, you may want to spend every spare moment on the site.
If the pro-Ford team, the Blind Believers, wins, "then Harold will publicly kneel in Nathan Phillips Square and make a contrite apology to Mayor Ford for ever doubting the validity of his claims." But if the anti-Ford team, the June Jesters, wins "then Mayor Ford will resign his position as Toronto's Mayor and he just leaves City Hall."
"Of course," Desmarais acknowledges, "this contest has no legal weight."
Confusing things further is the fact that, in the printed newspaper, the diatribe from the longtime gay activist is not explicitly marked as an advertisement.
"Unfortunately in this case we missed the ['Advertisement'] tag at the top of the page during production of the paper and it was not caught before going to press," Ken Hickling, Xtra's director of advertising sales, tells me in an email. "This was our oversight and we have corrected this on our online PDF version of the paper."
And why did they decide to run it in the first place?
"We accepted this advertisement as there is nothing in it that violates our advertising policies and because we believe that groups and private individuals have a right to purchase space in order to deliver their political or activist messages, just as companies or individuals have the right to purchase space to deliver their commercial messages to our readers."
Click the below image to see a full-size PDF of the ad. (You can also view the PDF of the whole issue, which now includes the "Advertisement" tag.)