By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
At 30,000 feet, a businessman seductively leans over to the busty blonde woman sitting next to him in the new Upper Class suite of a Virgin Atlantic flight. He flirts, offering to invest in her new lingerie company. As he writes a check for $100 million, she responds by moaning each zero in mock porn calls. "Oh, Oh, Oh..."
When he hands her the check, she whips out a digital camera to snap a picture. "Voila!" he declares, "The money shot."
Advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky spent $1 million on the faux porn film-inspired ad - one in a series of tv spots released on LodgeNet Entertainment Corp.'s Adult Desires pay-per-view service along with real porn films. In other commercials, characters with names like "Mile High," "Big Ben," and "Summer Turbulence" promote the airline's new luxury suite with double entendres such as "your first time" on board and "several inches more" leg room.
Marketers, in search of new ways to strike the nerves of their audiences, are having fun imitating pornographers. In the Virgin Atlantic case, the imitation is a cheeky parody that comes from a company owned by a notoriously ribald Brit, Richard Branson, so maybe it's not so shocking.
Yet the ad is only one example of a marketer following the lead of the adult entertainment industry in choosing media distribution channels, technology, and aesthetic content.
Putting aside judgment as to whether the content is socially healthy (or even what constitutes pornography in the first place), pornographers have been on the cutting edge of the way that people consume media. According to University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann's 1994 "Sex in America" survey, 23 percent of men and 11 percent of women watch x-rated movies or videos; 22 percent of men and four percent of women have visited a club with nude or seminude dancers; and 16 percent of men and four percent of women look at sexually explicit books or magazines.
Estimates on the size of the adult industry range from $8 billion to $11 billion a year, with sales and rentals of porn videos raking in some $4 billion of that, according to Adult Video News, an industry trade publication.
Adult entertainment is big business on the Internet: Online adult content racks up more than $2.5 billion in the U.S., according to Global Information, Inc. Consider this: Two in five Web users visited an adult site in April, and four percent of all online traffic, and two percent of all time spent surfing involved adult content, according to comScore Media Metrix. For the same month, Nielsen/NetRatings says that 34 million unique visitors, or 24 percent of active Internet users visited an online adult site at least once during the month.
"We're a nation that values innovation and entrepreneurial skills," says Frederick Lane, the author of Obscene Profits, a book about the online pornography industry. Pornography entrepreneurs "were the first to recognize the distributive capabilities of the Internet and that people would be willing to pay for privacy [in] consumption."
Porn In Recent History
Over the course of the 20th century, live peep shows gave way to pornographic photos, videos, and Web sites. Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner discovered magazines as a way to reach mass audiences. VHS technology took porn films out of the movie houses and into people's living rooms. Ditto DVD, pay-per-view, and video-on-demand.
The adult entertainment industry has been a pioneer on the Web, where it's a highly profitable leader in marketing innovation. Adult film star Jenna Jameson notes that the porn business "has been a driving force for increased Web technology, mainly because of the demand for our products over the Internet." Where porn goes, Internet marketing goes, even in an age of heightened cultural conservatism.
But in the 1990s, licentiousness seemed to come out of the closet. President Clinton's affair with a 22-year-old intern jolted the media landscape and turned talk of thongs and blow jobs into all-American dinner table conversation. In this atmosphere, sexually confident, Lolita-like pop stars took center stage on mtv, single New York women debated vibrator models over brunch on HBO's "Sex in the City," and pornography became downright mainstream.
Porn chic exploded in movies like "Boogie Nights," and the newfound sexual comfort led Madison Avenue pulse-takers and magazine editors to push the boundaries of sexual innuendo in advertising, editorial content, and coverlines.
Designer Calvin Klein asked consumers to question the boundaries of decency when he launched an ad campaign that appeared to include underage children in poses that alluded to amateur porn videos shot in a basement. The Kaplan Thaler Group produced its now infamous ads for Clairol's Herbal Essences shampoo, in which women moan with pleasure from the apparent satisfaction of a good shampooing. "It's a totally organic experience," the slogan boasted.
While helming Glamour, Bonnie Fuller, now editorial director of American Media, ran a cover line on the magazine that was worthy of a Triple-X magazine for mainstream America: "Get Moregasmic!"
In this sexually charged atmosphere, the Internet exploded and made it possible for people to stream and download pornography from the privacy of their computer screens. The new pornographers exploited the Web with the first streaming video and experimented with new marketing techniques - everything from banner and pop-up ads promoting nubile sex kittens and freaky fetishes, to spam e-mail messages touting aids for penis enlargement.
According to Eric White, the CEO of Virtual Reality Innovations, a company that produces virtual reality porn videos, the first spyware products originated in the adult entertainment industry.
In the post-9/11 Bush era, bawdy sexual innuendo has retired, to a degree. To keep its Bible-Belt, red states constituencies happy, the Bush administration has climbed on the decency bandwagon.
Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's "nipplegate" Super Bowl debacle was roundly criticized by the decency censors. Britney's sexually charged imitation-burlesque acts have lost their luster, (of course the poptart is now in the family way), replaced by the growing popularity of singers like Alicia Keyes who offer more introspective and soulful ballads. Keyes' image, while sexual, also exudes strength and character.
Hollywood has turned its back on overly eroticized movies like "Boogie Nights" and "Eyes Wide Shut," in favor of flicks where the sexual message is subtler, or at least funnier, like "American Pie."
Last year, Abercrombie & Fitch folded its quarterly catalogue because of protests over scantily clad models and racy sex advice. Magazine editors have cooled down hot-pink fonts and sexual banter on their covers.
Porn parody is another example of a slightly cooler approach. Virgin Atlantic's campaign targeted business travelers via LodgeNet, a hotel entertainment network. Obviously, hotels are places where a lot of porn gets consumed. Yet instead of a blatantly erotic approach, Virgin's campaign makes cheeky fun of porn.
In one ad, a woman receives an in-flight massage. A man carrying a wrench approaches her and states: "I've come to fix your pipes." A masseuse declares: "I'm afraid you've wandered into the wrong movie. You're one channel over."
A Subtler Sexual Sell
"In this market, it's nearly impossible to say in what direction advertising content is headed in terms of sexual messages," says Aurora Wallace, an assistant professor in the culture and communication department at New York University. "Virgin isn't totally representative. After all, Procter and Gamble isn't exactly exploiting porn themes."
However, one mainstream advertiser, Burger King, did take a soft core approach by employing subversive and viral tactics to promote a new chicken sandwich to young men. The burger giant's "Subservient Chicken" campaign represented a quirky online effort that drew inspiration from the porn world.
Crispin Porter created the chicken avatar which appeared to be living in a seedy apartment, like the kind featured in soft-core porn flicks. The chicken responded to commands entered by consumers - any commands, that is, except blatantly sexual ones. Fans of the character e-mailed the chicken site's link to friends and it became an online hit.
In 2004, The Bush administration passed the Can-Spam Act, short for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act. The law forbids the use of unsolicited e-mails and false subject headlines that lead to porn sites, and allows courts to set damages of up to $2 million when spammers disobey it.
While legitimate pornographers began following these rules, many illegitimate companies continued to employ suspect techniques in their marketing strategies.
According to the e-mail management firm Email Systems, porn spam e-mail dropped by 92.5 percent in February 2005, while unsolicited e-mails offering dating services surged by 171 percent. These dating services are often porn sites in disguise.
According to Clearswift's Spam Index, the number of spam e-mails linking to these sites is on the rise, and most of these sites are hosted in Russia or China where there are few, if any regulations. The sites also frequently contain malicious programs, including spyware or rogue Internet dialers that can run up unexpected bills.
Per Caroe, a senior sales manager at Email Labs, which provides software for e-mail marketing, says that many of the illegitimate pornographers, and the affiliate marketers who help drive traffic to them, cause most of the problems. They engage in "scraping," which is the practice of distributing "bots" that look for people's e-mail addresses.
Many of these hucksters are able to compress large video and audio files for distribution over the Internet. "What's eventually going to happen is that people will be paid to receive these large e-mails and receive credit for viewing them because the eyeballs are of value to the company," Caroe says. "This comes from the porn industry."
Eventually the new compression technologies will segue to the wireless arena, which is already ripe for porn. "Europe is way ahead of the game in terms of the new marketing and distribution channels for adult content because the standards of decency are different," says Clinton Fayling, president of Brickhouse Mobile. His company is attempting to work with U.S. phone companies to set decency standards so that adult entertainment content can be distributed via mobile phones.
Tom Reichert, the author of The Erotic History of Advertising, says that since society has become so saturated by porn through the Internet, porn-inspired sexual imagery may not be as effective as it once was because of "habituation," the idea that repeated exposure to common forms of sexual content requires more varied sexual information to achieve the same level of excitement.
Given our constant saturation with commercial messages, marketers are looking for new ways to stimulate our cultural and universal senses. Last year, it took a hotel heiress, (Paris Hilton), finding her way into a homemade porn video, to shock us.
Porn is becoming a more natural and almost acceptable part of the media landscape. Vivid Entertainment's Jameson has become a crossover brand, appearing in an ad campaign for Pony athletic shoes. Her autobiography, How to Make Love like a Porn Star (Regan Books, 2004), sits on the front table at Barnes & Noble. Vivid rakes in an estimated $100 million in revenue and is said to be mulling an initial public offering. Apart from making more than 60 adult films a year, Vivid even sells snowboards and street fashion apparel.
Providers of online adult entertainment content are in the driver's seat as far as leveraging broadband video, on-demand technologies, and online advertising tactics including search and rich media. Even if the decency police say "no" to porn, eyeballs are saying "yes, yes, yes!"
Uncharted Adult Waters
Eric White, ceo of Virtual Reality Innovations, says the future for adult content lies in viral and niche marketing. His company makes virtual reality sex videos; think "Being John Malkovich Getting Head," and a machine built by a former National Security Agency employee that attaches to your computer and has a suction mechanism.
"Advertising seems to be leaning towards customized niche markets," White says, adding, "Being able to attune to a very specific fetish such as blonde girls who wear high heels and use balloons, is the best way to drill down and touch advertising bones. The porn industry doesn't want to start doing anything that is going to scare away customers."
As Vivid's star property, Jameson's Club Jenna Web site is touted as a "technology leader in the industry." Steven Hirsch, the president of Vivid, is developing video-on-demand and wireless content services. The Yankee Group projects that the mobile adult-content business will be worth $1 billion worldwide by 2008.
"Currently there is only a limited amount of video-on-demand on the Internet," Hirsch says. "Soon you will be able to choose from many online video stores and have access to several thousand titles. Our object is to make sure that a Vivid film is placed at the top of the list. From that point, these video stores will be able to keep track of people's specific tastes immediately," he says.
Vivid will soon begin giving people what they want by transmitting wireless videos shot exclusively for mobile phones and pornographic games for those phones. Companies like xtc Mobile.com are currently transmitting porn video clips as well as "groan" and "moan" ring tones to cell phones and personal digital assistants.
The mobile business is stronger in Europe because few operators in the U.S. will accept adult content, but even that is changing. In April, Brickhouse Mobile inked a deal with Wicked Pictures, a leading adult content site. "We're taking a measured approach to this space because this climate is conservative," Brickhouse's Fayling says. "What we're trying to do is find the middle ground with carriers and trade associations to set standards of decency with mobile content and then push content into the marketplace."
Pushing aside politics, author Frederick Lane is skeptical that porn will thrive in the mobile, wireless world as much as it has with homebound PC users. "I'm not sure I'd look at porn if I were sitting with my computer in a cafe," he says.
"The chief innovation was the increase in privacy that the Internet offered and wireless runs counter to that trend," Lane notes, adding, "Then again, a few years ago, it seemed odd to hear the intimate details of people's lives through their street cell phone conversations."
Maybe in a few more years it won't be so strange to see people receiving those pleasure calls on the street - even if the viewer is wearing a business suit.