Billboard companies turning against Macon massage parlor signs

The fight over the Macon area’s massage parlors is increasingly turning to the skies.

Some billboard companies are getting out of the massage-parlor sign business, and a group that represents about two-thirds of the state’s billboards is encouraging members to look at the group’s ethics code. Meanwhile, a Mercer University-based anti-human-trafficking group now has an interstate sign less than a mile from Bibb County’s border, calling for an end to “modern-day slavery” it said happens in the parlors.

Chris Story, general manager for the local branch of Lamar Advertising Co., said he’s encouraging other billboard companies to distance themselves from the parlors by no longer carrying the ads.

“I think the trend is you’d probably see them kind of dropping off (billboards). Our decision was, if the massage parlors (are) getting raided and four out of six have prostitution going on, we just don’t need to be advertising or promoting that business,” Story said.

Katey Brown, a board member of the Middle Georgia Alliance to End Regional Trafficking, said two other companies have at least partially joined the cause. Fairway Outdoor bought Magic Media and plans not to renew Magic Media’s contracts with the parlors, she said. And a CBS Outdoor salesman actually chopped down a rickety billboard advertising a massage parlor, though another salesman continues to place the ads, she said. CBS Outdoor did not respond to requests for comment.

The anti-trafficking group, known as MG ALERT, bought its own signs in late January, getting them placed in Forsyth and on Riverside Drive near Soft Hands Massage and Spa. Those signs were moved to near Byron and on Riverside Drive near the Tokyo Health Spa. Sponsors included a Kennesaw resident who mailed a $1,000 check, which would keep the group’s billboards up another month.

Not everyone opposes the massage parlor billboards that lead the way to Macon.

Local Libertarian David Corr said the massage parlors have a legal right to advertise, and billboard companies can choose their ads.

“I do defend their right to make a private decision as to what advertising they will and will not accept,” Corr said. “But having said that, I would hope they continue to allow the spas to advertise for the simple reason that they’ve been much maligned and that the Mercer group in particular has basically lied through their teeth.”

Corr, a vocal supporter of the parlors’ right to do business here, said MG ALERT lies about evidence of human trafficking. No trafficking charges have been filed in Macon. The group, however, said the evidence is plain: A 17-year-old was arrested on masturbation-for-hire charges at All American Spa, and a federal law defines severe sex trafficking as that done under fraud, force or coercion — or anyone under 18 induced to perform a commercial sex act.

Meanwhile, the fight over billboards continues. The Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia, which represents 65 percent of billboards statewide, points its members to a voluntary code of ethics that opposes ads that are false, misleading, in poor taste, sexually explicit or overly suggestive, said Executive Director Conner Poe. The group hopes to tighten the state’s standards for obscenities, and praised state Sen. Cecil Staton, a Macon Republican, for trying to crack down on massage parlors.

One provision of Staton’s bill would make it a felony on the third offense to offer massages or advertising massages without being a licensed massage therapist. Violators could be fined $25,000 and spend one to five years in jail.

Some of Macon’s massage parlors have removed the name “massage” from their advertising and names, but remnants exist. Four Seasons Sauna lists massages on business cards and its menu of offerings. Soft Hands Massage & Spa is changing its name to one involving tanning, but keeps a Web site, phone listing and a billboard listing the old name.

MG ALERT is still targeting billboards from CBS Outdoor, Olympus Outdoor Advertising and InSite Media.

Olympus doesn’t think the removal of inoffensive billboard advertisements would end prostitution and human trafficking, Marketing Director Renata McCreary said in a statement.

“While Olympus does not condone illegal activities, as long as these businesses are still operating, we have to assume they are legal and have the right to advertise,” she wrote. “If the businesses are operating illegally, it is up to the authorities to shut them down.”

The governments of Macon and Bibb County are both considering stricter business regulations for massage parlors.

Efforts elsewhere have eliminated many of the businesses.

McCreary said Olympus will continue to monitor the situation.

InSite Media President Glenn Flutie said last week he hadn’t heard of MG ALERT’s efforts, but said, “If there’s human trafficking, we want nothing to do with that.”

The company’s lawyer, Marlyn Friend, later said the company also was “against the exploitation of minors (and others) in sexual activity.”

He refused to comment on the controversy or say whether the company would no longer accept massage-parlor ads.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.