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  How is porn penetrating the mainstream market?   How is porn penetrating the mainstream market?  Abram Sauer  
How is porn penetrating the mainstream market? Most non-porn on porn writing is all about the numbers: “Billions of dollars a year….” “12,000 people employed in California….” “Hundreds of thousands of titles….” The numbers are there for one reason: to tell you to “listen up” because “this is big.” The high numbers about the low acts are meant to shock. And of course the puns come fast and heavy. But the shock isn’t there as much anymore. Porn is becoming, as mainstream media loves to warn us, “mainstream.”

Barely Legal, but Still Legal
Barna Research Group published a cultural study in 2003 that documents just how welcome porn has become. The study also illustrated how fast – just one generation – this shift occurred. Fifty percent of those ages 18 to 19 say that watching porn is morally okay. In their parents’ demographic, ages 39 to 57, only 38 percent feel the same. In the 58-and-up age group that number falls to 23 percent. The trend reflects an increasingly individual view of morality among younger generations, and more importantly, an increased comfort level with porn.

Carly Milne, of adult publicity and consulting firm Sin Spin and editor of industry insight journal, says, “Young adults are reaching a point where they’re comfortable enough with sexuality and pornography to say ‘yeah, morally this is okay.’ ”

A great deal of this change in attitudes has to do with the relatively mundane field of information technology. Scott Rabinowitz, president of interactive ad management and consulting agency Traffic Dude, says, “People coming of age during the information age have been de-sensitized to the perceived shock value of erotic content and entertainment.”

Jonno d'Addario, editor of pornography journal, echoes these views: “Young people have much easier access to porn. [They’re] exposed to it at an earlier age. That makes them more accepting of porn as a given feature in their media landscape.”

Such reasoning certainly accounts for part of porn brands’ growing exposure. However, helping this trend along are the brands within the industry itself, which have been, for years, taking proactive steps toward greater name recognition and improved brand acceptance in the mainstream.

Quality Over Quantity
Accounts of the Vivid Video success story all acknowledge that the brand is to be praised, or blamed, for turning the industry in the direction it is moving today. Founded in 1984, Vivid is now the world’s leading adult entertainment producer. The company distributes its products directly through the mail, over the Internet, through retail outlets and via cable and satellite. It also a major provider of content to pay-per-view networks around the world. More importantly though, it is probably one of the only hardcore production companies with high name recognition among the general public. This is more surprising than it may appear, considering that many of the traditional avenues for brand development were never open to it and word of mouth is difficult in a industry that likes to keep its mouth closed about its work.

Unlike its cross-town brethren, such as Universal Studios, Vivid has been limited in terms of what media mix it could use to build its brand, but still the brand has grown. According to Rabinowitz, “If there is such a thing as brand loyalty, beyond the original adult brands such as Playboy, few contemporary adult shops enjoy this recognition to the degree that Vivid does.”

In part Vivid’s success can be traced back to the earliest brand building strategy of all: attention to consumer need and product quality. Almost everything responsible for Vivid’s success went against the porn industry dogma. Instead of shooting on grainy low-quality film, Vivid paid for good film. Instead of filming in whatever garage was available, Vivid scouted first-rate locations. Vivid hired top make-up, lighting and other technical professionals and paid top dollar for them. And, more than anything, Vivid introduced the concept that “talent” might be more than biological; it could be developed and not just implanted. By signing the most popular actors to exclusive contracts, Vivid ensured that it would always have a quality commodity. In a recent Adult Video News (AVN) interview, Vivid co-founder Steve Hirsch explained: "I wanted somebody to know that when they went into the video store, where it involved a piece of Vivid tape, that they were going to get a Vivid girl -- one of the best girls in the business, and they were [going to] get a real movie."

Vivid’s blueprint was almost immediately copied. Repeatedly.

But while the US presents particular puritanical barriers in terms of building a porn brand, adult entertainment brands in other less uptight nations have been using conventional methods of marketing and branding for years with excellent results. Beate Uhse is not just one of Germany’s best-known adult brands, but one of its best-known overall brands. Operating a chain of erotic goods shops and distributing materials via mail and the Internet, Beate Uhse claims a name recognition level of 98 percent among German consumers. And when its namesake founder passed away in 2001, elected officials publicly expressed grief. Despite a more accepting society, Beate Uhse built its brand much like Vivid did years later, by delivering a high quality product. Today, as the group moves into the spectacularly promising adult Internet arena, Beate Uhse’s brand reputation can be leveraged to attract consumers who want to get online the same quality as they got off-line.

Slow and Steady
A further element that has proven essential to building a solid brand in the adult industry is patience. An adult brand that has woven together a multi-pronged strategy is the Australian company AdultShop. Breaking the “mainstream” brand barrier in Australia, AdultShop has had a great amount of success with both viral and conventional advertising. Its ads have appeared in the Australian Financial Times and FHM, building AdultShop’s success on wits, not tits. Ads with slogans such as “Penetrate a new market” and “Moan, moan, moan – that’s all we hear from our customers” don’t win burning, immediate sales, but over time, they do build the image of a quality, trustworthy brand.

In an AVN interview, Vivid director Paul Thomas spoke to this concept of time investment: “[The films] make money eventually, but it's never immediately and it's never hand over fist.” The strategy of slow and steady has paid off for AdultShop as the brand has won numerous mainstream advertising awards for its campaigns. Rabinowitz says attention to quality is what makes a successful porn brand: “Acknowledgement for employing and cultivating awareness of beautiful models, rather than just heavy action will allow the branded adult companies to prosper well into the future.”

Fleshbot’s d'Addario notes this as well, citing “consistency” as the factor that “porn companies with an established following, as well as those which are just starting to achieve wide commercial and critical success, owe their success to.”

Ménage à Deux
As seen by the success of Beate Uhse, Vivid, and AdultShop, the attention toward couples – and this means women – is another step toward greater mainstream appeal. In the past, the porn industry was almost exclusively geared toward men and their perceived needs. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if, as the Barna survey states, 50 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds approve of porn and approximately 50 percent of that 50 percent are women, not catering to 25 percent of an entire demographic’s needs is missing out on a big piece of the pie.

A recent AdultShop annual report summarizes its branding strategy: “The design of websites, product choice and brand positioning with couples, women and men, in mind was instrumental in successfully creating an adult retailer with an accepted mainstream brand.” Reiterating this concern about more than just men is Vivid Entertainment Group vice president of licensing David Schlesinger. Responding by email, Schlesinger sums Vivid up as “the leading adult film company in the world, and the leading producer of films for couples.” (Emphasis added.)

Pornblography’s Milne puts this tactic into perspective: “Women have recognized that they have sexual needs that need to be taken care of as well, and ‘rubbing one out’ to a porn film can be as equally satisfying as reading a Jackie Collins smut novel. And the more and more women that get involved in viewing pornography, the more and more it legitimizes the industry.”

Furthermore, women’s increased acceptance of porn has a complementary effect on men’s attitudes. Milne says, “When women become more comfortable with it they make the men more comfortable with it and vice versa. Then [the men] think, ‘If my girl’s into it, then it’s ok for me to be into it,’ and it just keeps going on in circles.” This strategy appears to pay off, as AdultShop claims that 40 percent of its customer base is female.

Brand 69: Do Me, Do You
Maybe the most strategic way in which adult brands are successfully mainstreaming themselves is through mutually beneficial licensing deals. These something-for-everyone partnerships give mainstream brands the cachet of sex appeal and attention-grabbing shock while their porn-producing partners are introduced to a new audience that might otherwise be too shy or timid to find them through the usual outlets. Vivid’s Schlesinger speaks to his brand’s involvement in licensing: “[Our] program includes publishing through the ReaganBooks division of HarperCollins; television programming with a 13 part series “Porno Valley”; comic books with Avatar Press and a variety of products from cigars, condoms, herbal supplements and t-shirts to snowboards.”

Vivid’s quality image has also won it precious agreements with Tower Records and Virgin Megastores. Image-wise, these retail partnerships may be the most valuable affiliations of all, as many customers expect these outlets to only handle quality, legitimate products.

While adult brands posture for creditability through mainstream licensing partnerships, there is an added bonus for the non-porn brands that ink endorsement deals with brands like Vivid and Wicked. The sorts of companies that team with a porn brand aiming to cultivate a rebellious on-the-edge image are frequently youth-oriented and in the deepest trenches in terms of fighting for brand loyalty and attention. Any extra inch counts. The street cred such brands are seeking is less about an association with porn than it is about the mainstream media attention for having done such an “unconscionable thing.” In turn, the mainstream media’s typically scandalized reaction to such alliances also helps to get an adult brand’s name out. While Milne maintains that “you never want anyone to go out there and talk negatively about you,” when it comes to the already existing reputation of an adult brand name she admits that in most cases “even negative publicity can be good publicity.”

Recent libertarian approaches to morality and the tactical marketing strategies employed by porn companies have collaborated to make conventional consideration of porn brands a reality. However, more than anything else, the demystification of the industry as a whole helps make this collaboration possible. From Hollywood’s dramatization of the business of porn (recent films include “Neverland” and the critically acclaimed “Boogie Nights”) to legitimate books by porn actresses to endorsement deals by shoe and snowboard companies featuring the brands and their starlets, porn is having the curtain pulled and the lights turned on. As this continues, all media will fuse into what Traffic Dude’s Rabinowitz calls “convergence” wherein “entertainment content as a whole and adult content [will be] packaged and regarded as just part of what consumers can access.”

It appears that, like with everything, nostalgia for the past still exists. d’Addario laments a bit about the passing of an era: “I’d hate it if it became too mainstream. Porn should always be a little bit dangerous.”    



Abram D. Sauer, former columnist for The China Daily and co-founder of, lives in New York and welcomes freelance opportunities.

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