What’s the big deal about nine middle-aged men walking the streets
of suburbia in the buff?
According to the United States Postal Service, it’s erotic -
and potentially offensive.
That was the lesson for the Brooklyn Academy of Music when it
was forced to stuff 10,000 postcards - featuring a rear view
of a line of naked men - into envelopes after a Staten Island
postal employee ruled that they were offensive, The Brooklyn
Papers has learned.
The BAM postcard, featuring a photo from the short film "A Heap of
Trouble," was a promotion for a two-day BAMcinematek series titled
"The World According to Shorts," which opens Aug. 1. (See
GO Brooklyn for film series coverage.)
When Robert Grande of the Mailing Requirements department of
the Staten Island Manor Road Post Office got a look at the line
of naked men’s rear ends on the postcard, he deemed the mailing
a "sexually oriented ad."
According to Kwang Lee of Prompt Mailers Inc., which executes
mass mailings for BAM, Grande told him that "the postcard
will not be acceptable based on the content." Lee had submitted
the postcard to him for his evaluation on June 4.
"He suggested that the bare areas be covered with a block-out
or may have to be redesigned," Lee told The Papers this
The definition of "Sexually Oriented Advertisements,"
according to the U.S. Postal Service’s "Domestic Mail Manual,"
is, "any advertisement that depicts, in actual or simulated
form, or explicitly describes, in a predominantly sexual context,
human genitalia, any act of natural or unnatural sexual intercourse
or any other erotic subject directly related to the foregoing."
The BAM postcard does not depict genitalia - it depicts the backsides
of naked men. (The men are wearing unfashionable dark socks and
shoes.) The men, who are not engaging in any type of sexual activity,
are facing a row of suburban homes, and there is an overturned
bicycle in the foreground. The men are clearly not models - most
of them have sagging buttocks and balding heads.
So what’s a post office to do? Laugh and mail the cards, or,
take steps to avoid a possible negative reaction from a few recipients
of the cards.
Grande told BAM it could choose between "the old television
bar, to cover up the offending part," or put the postcards
Jonathan Howell, curator of "The World According to Shorts"
at BAM, said he was surprised the post office wanted to censor
"It is more anatomically oriented than sexually oriented.
It’s clearly in the service of humor, perhaps more of a British-type
humor, so perhaps [Grande] didn’t get it. Maybe he’s not a fan
of Monty Python."
Grande pointed out that his decision wasn’t necessarily the final
"They can appeal through the postal system for a higher
authority if they feel I’m too restrictive," said Grande.
Despite the post office’s censorship of the postcard, BAM still
mailed the postcards - all 10,000 - in envelopes. According to
Howell, the envelopes do not say "sexually oriented ad"
as stipulated by the post office regulation for material deemed
to be "sexually oriented."
"Oh my goodness, I didn’t think of that," said Howell.
"I did run this postcard by representatives of several cultural
institutions and they were all OK with it and were fairly surprised
anyone found it offensive."
Howell explained that the photo was from a short film by Steve
Sullivan, appropriately titled "A Heap of Trouble."
"It’s about nine naked men walking down the road, and they’re
singing, ’Nine naked men walking down the road would cause a
heap of trouble for everyone concerned.’ It’s about the middle
class reaction to nudity - which is panic," he said.
Howell added the film is a comedy, and that he didn’t think the
photo would get such a reaction from either the postal inspectors
or people who received it.
"[’A Heap of Trouble’] got one of the most positive audience
responses when I saw it in France in February at Clermont-Ferrand’s
Festival du Court Metrage," said Howell. "The audience
was laughing a lot, to put it mildly."
BAM printed 40,000 of the postcards through Manhattan-based GO
Card, which distributes about 30,000 of the them in restaurants
and other public areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn with 10,000
sent through the mail, according to Howell.
"We chose this image because it’s eye catching," said
Howell. "And in the context of a GO Card, that’s what we
need because it’s on display with several other GO Cards."
But what would happen if an individual picked up the postcard
from a GO Card stand and mailed it? Nothing, explained Grande
of the post office. If an individual mails a postcard to another
individual, it’s up to the recipient to complain to the post
office. After an investigation by the post office’s inspection
department, the individual who mailed the card could be charged
with violating the regulations governing sexually oriented advertisements.
BAM, on the other hand, was mailing 10,000 postcards and was
applying for the bulk-mail discount, so it was subject to the
post office’s discretion prior to mailing them.
But "if they’re only putting it in one envelope, they would
need marking on it," explained Grande, referring to the
"sexually oriented ad" phrase.
"They wanted a reduced rate, and that needs to be approved,"
said Grande. "If it’s sent first class, we really can’t
look at it. We’re not allowed. We only see the address side.
We don’t see the other side. But if [the recipient of that card]
comes up and says, ’I feel this is offensive,’ we have to take
As for the penalty that BAM, or an individual, who mails the
card without an envelope with marking would suffer, it’s out
of the hands of the Postal Service.
"If it violates the Postal Code that would go under the
law, and the police would be involved. I wouldn’t be," explained
If BAM had chosen not to show the postcard to Grande, and forego
the bulk-mail rate, the cards could have gone unnoticed, said
Grande, adding, "If [the mailing] was large volume and [a
postal employee] happened to look at them, they might question
it and send it to a postal inspector for clarification.
"Since they sent it to us before they mailed it," Grande
said, "they must have felt in their hearts that there was
something wrong with it. With bulk mail, we think about the few
people who will have objections."
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010