Off the Media

Virgin Territory: Why Some Advertisers Are Finally Embracing Online Porn

 Virgin Territory: Why Some Advertisers Are Finally Embracing Online PornSmart marketers look for opportunities that other marketers have missed. They try to take advantage of taboos or assumptions that may have hamstrung their competitors. When done right, this impulse can create something powerful or unexpected and usually yield a massive ROI.

We’ve seen it a bunch of times. Someone will use social media in some new way (Old Spice). Someone will take advantage of late night television ads in some new way (Snuggie). Someone will take advantage of celebrities or quirky news stories. (Remember GoldenPalace.com?)

Sometimes, someone will take advantage of pornography.

At least, that’s exactly what Eat24, the online food delivery service, when they decided to run a series of kitschy but clever ads on various porn websites. And then, naturally, created a provocative “case study” where they revealed themselves and kicked off a major online discussion about it. (This is key for publicity stunts, by the way. Don’t sit around and wait for the media to discover it–these days you’ve got give it to them with a bow on top)

Like all the other marketing “innovations” this was great for a lot of reasons, if only because it was well executed, unexpected and came on a slow news day.

It was not necessarily new, however. For starters, in 2009, I had more or less the same idea. American Apparel had done a nude photoshoot with a then relatively unknown adult film star named Sasha Grey (she later went on to become an accomplished actress and author). I figured it would be a good news story if we tried running NSFW ads online, so I had a designer turn them into banners. For less than $1,500 I bought a month’s worth of space on two blogs that covered the sex industry, Susannah Breslin’s Reverse Cowgirl and a blog called Debauchette. The ads blew up and have done millions of impressions over the years, most of them as part of news stories rather than on the sites themselves.

And more recently, the porn site Paintbottle.com brokered an advertising deal with Me Undies to run ads on their site–which distinguishes itself from other porn sites by showing higher quality videos and deliberately not allowing low-rent ads. In fact, at the time, the founders of Paintbottle called me for advice because they’d seen the press reaction to our campaign.

I told them that advertisers love copying other advertisers, so if someone came on board and got some good PR out of it, they’d likely see others follow suit. Of course, I also told them to expect that the meta-reaction–news stories about porn advertising–to be disproportionately large, but that they could use this to their advantage.

See, the media loves porn marketing and business stories. Why? Because it means they get to talk about the thing we are all thinking about (sex) but pretend it’s news about advertising. Or a story about online piracy or whatever. Make no mistake, it’s really just an excuse for click-baity headline and some dirty thumbnails or slideshows.

Why do you think everyone ate up the Sydney Leathers story? Or porn “spoofs” about Sarah Palin? I’ll tell you, it’s not because they’re that interested in the political implications.

But the question remains, is pornography a viable medium for advertising outside of a couple stunts? Can it actually generate returns? Because not every company that follows in Me Undies or Eat24’s footsteps is going to get featured in Digiday or Fast Company. In fact, the whole reason those companies did get the press was because they were first.

At the same time, porn sites currently generate billions if advertising impressions a month–why don’t brands take advantage of that audience?It is not as if porn is only for deviants these days. The numbers are far too big for anyone but fundamentalists in denial to conclude that “normal” people look at a lot of porn.

Not only that, since most advertisers won’t touch it, the rates would conceivably be less competitive. According to Eat24, they found that porn CPM’s were roughly 1/10 of what other publishers were charging. In other words, you can get a lot of inventory, cheaply, from an audience that isn’t over saturated.

Ironically, I would guess that the main thing holding companies back from diving into this space is the current advertisers who are already taking advantage of the low rates. Pull up YouPorn or Redtube for a second, the first thing that hits you (well, second or third thing, I guess) is how gross and preposterous most of the ads are.

Enzyte might not be on TV anymore but porn sites are loaded with spammy ads for penis enhancing pills. The ads you’ll see on Youporn will make you long for the old days when advertisers had some dignity and class. Weirdly porn also advertises for a lot of other porn. Like, it’s pretty much the main thing porn advertises–as though the only thing its viewers are interested in are more videos.

If porn sites were to clean up their inventory or even artificially suppress it by eliminating scams and low rent stuff, would brands move in? Not right away, but I believe you’d see provocative companies start to. Why wouldn’t Bang with Friends, Tindr or Hinge advertise there? Why shouldn’t musicians or record labels? What about publishers of erotic fiction? Apparel, gag gifts, even some retailers would make perfect sense. In fact, I would think that all these entities would have jumped on the bandwagon before a food delivery service.

What if retargeting networks–which follow browsers across the web and serve them ads based on products they’ve looked at–started serving inventory on porn sites? In that case, whether someone was watching gay porn, straight porn or clown porn it wouldn’t matter. Or at least it would be secondary to the fact that a few days earlier they’d looked for shoes on Zappos.

Of course there is the inherent problem with porn audiences–they are by their very nature…ahem…a little preoccupied and not available to buy things.

But, the inventory is incredibly cheap and has essentially unlimited supply. Then again the same is true for Reddit, Imgur, Facebook and Tumblr–infinite inventory at rock bottom prices–but companies stuck in the stone age (or rather the golden age of television and radio) are only just beginning to come around to those advertising opportunities, too.

Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author and adviser to many brands and writers. His newest book, Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing and Advertising, focuses on the untraditional tactics behind a new class of thinkers who disrupted the marketing industry.