'Vamp Me Via Zoom': How personal ads at The New York Review of Books embraced the language of the pandemic

  • At The New York Review of Books, COVID-19, Zoom, and vaccines made their way into the personal ads.
  • Sharmaine Ong, who manages the ads, gave Insider a look at her favorites from the last year.
  • One began: “Tony Fauci Seeks Deborah Birx.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A few days ago, Sharmaine Ong, who manages the personal ads at The New York Review of Books, said she’d be happy to choose a few of her favorite listings from the last year or so, since COVID-19 first brought New York City to a standstill.

Moments later, an email arrived listing her top four.

Tony Fauci Seeks Deborah Birx — public health wonk seeks earthy Jewish woman for sniggering about the boss after work with our masks off,” read one of Ong’s favorites, from July 2020, when the real Fauci and Birx were often seen standing behind President Donald Trump at the White House.  

Ong, who was promoted to advertising associate in January 2020, told Insider that as the pandemic picked up, she noticed a few interesting changes in the literary publication’s personals. These have long had a reputation as a mating ground for educated, sometimes wealthy, playful-with-words types.  

Mentions of COVID, Zoom, and other pandemic-related topics spiked last year, as might be expected. (One from last July began with “In the time of Corona …”) Some ad-buyers said they were lonely during lockdowns. Others were looking for pen pals, since face-to-face meetings were difficult.

Ong, who started at the NYRB as an intern about three years ago, also said more young people began buying print ads as the pandemic worsened. 

“When I started, I noticed a lot of ads run by 40 to 80-year-olds, but now I’m seeing some ads from 20 to 30 year olds, which is quite different,” she said. 

Insider reached out to the email address attached to the Fauci/Birx ad. The ad-buyer introduced himself via email as Dr. Gabriel Ethan Feldman, who in 2011 was awarded $14.7 million as a federal whistleblower.

Feldman said via email that he’d mostly given up on internet dating, turning instead to print ads. The NYRB ad brought in a few replies. He’d gotten one date from it. They both wore masks. Nothing came of it.

“I thought it was a clever take as I am actually a real-life public health physician,” he said via email. 

After a few back-and-forth emails, Feldman added,:”You can use my name, I don’t mind. Everyone knows I can’t find someone in NYC despite being a multimillionaire, nice Jewish doctor, federal whistleblower.”

Another of Ong’s favorites was published last summer: “Vamp Me Via Zoom or FaceTime. Set my soul afire. Instagram my eager ego. Hashtag my desire. Though our lips may never meet. Tweet me, baby, tout de suite!” 

The NYRB usually increases its classified-ad rates each year but the company decided not to raise them last year during the pandemic, Ong said. The uptick in personal ad sales last summer outpaced growth in other ad categories at the NYRB, she said.

Rates for print ads ranged from $4.40 to $5.85 per word, depending on the number of issues the listing ran in. Emails counted as two words, phone numbers as one.

By this spring, the Zoom references had started being phased out, replaced instead by vaccine references. 

In March, the publication printed the most recent of Ong’s favorites: “Pair of Unrepentant Queers (one pansexual Asian punk femme & one curly-haired nonbinary flâneur) found love in these pages. Seeking COVID-negative company to complete the hat trick; be enlightening, generous, flexible, spirited.”

The final of Ong’s favorite ads from the last year wasn’t pandemic related. It was more in the spirit of the playful ads that have been running since 1968, when the NYRB published its first personal ad.

It read: “Ancient Bay Area live oak, still acorning, seeks fertile soil for sweet kindness. All species welcome.”

That one was written by Daniel Raskin, 77, a retired preschool teacher, widower, and grandfather living in San Francisco. He wrote it for the magazine’s personals contest, which it won. He said via email that he’d run a few other personal ads in the magazine in past. They had led to coffee dates. But he only got two replies this time. 

“It was too quirky to expect responses,” he said.

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