There’s an old, somewhat inappropriate joke about a rich man who asks a woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. She says maybe. How about for five dollars, he asks. What do you think I am, comes the indignant reply. We’ve already established that, he says. Now we’re just haggling over price.


This comes to mind in the context of advertisements on buses and bus shelters, which keep casting our transit authorities in the role of censors and arbiters of public morality.


The latest collision between profit and propriety played out in Calgary and Mississauga over bus shelter ads for Virgin Mobile depicting humans and winged angel-like beings making out under the slogan, “Hook Up Fearlessly.”


Transit authorities objected to the placement of the couples’ hands on each other’s thighs and buttocks. Most bus riders have probably witnessed skankier scenes among their fellow passengers


We had our own outburst of tsk-tsking in Ottawa over Virgin’s intentionally provocative ads for its classic rock station, depicting pregnant women and advising, “Lock Up Your Daughters,” as the “gods of rock” were in town, apparently keen on putting Ottawa womenfolk in the condition depicted. For questionable taste above and beyond the call of duty, one of the ads was posted near the abortion clinic on Sparks Street.

Virgin Radio, after reaping much free publicity, pulled the ads.

And then there was the initial prohibition, subsequently reversed, on those atheist bus ads advising “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Calgary and Toronto had already run the ads -- in spite of Calgary Archbishop Fred Henry’s denunciations of them as “hate-filled” -- but OC Transpo initially decided they were too much for Ottawa.

In Toronto last month, the TTC rejected ads not over content, but over the nature of the advertiser itself -- Ashley Madison, a dating service for married people seeking affairs.

For all this keen concern over public sensibilities, though, there is no question as to the propriety of ads in general, of pimping public property to the highest bidder.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to ads (they pay for the paper you’re reading, and this column) but I sometimes wonder whether it’s right for taxpayer-supported services to be thus branded, thereby adding to the corporate clutter of our increasingly ad-saturated public spaces.

The sad fact is public transit is an expensive service, and we seem unwilling to pay its full cost. Maybe by the very act of selling the surfaces of our transit system we’ve already established what we are. Now we’re just haggling over the details.