Under the Influence

Summer Series: Strange Bedfellows - Advertising & Porn

*Our Summer Series airs every Saturday at 1:30pm on CBC Radio One.* This week, we explore the increasingly blurry line between advertising and porn. There has always been a line advertisers wouldn’t cross to promote their wares - but now some marketers have tiptoed over that line to advertise on porn sites. From food companies to fashion brands to Hollywood movies, marketers have breached the final frontier in their search for bigger, more affordable audiences. And on the other side of the tracks, porn sites are beginning to advertise in mainstream media. It’s a big risk for these strange bedfellows.
This Week's Must-Listen Moment: Strange Bedfellows: Advertising & Porn- Part I 1:29

This week, we explore the increasingly blurry line between advertising and porn. There has always been a line advertisers wouldn't cross to promote their wares - but now some marketers have tiptoed over that line to advertise on porn sites. From food companies to fashion brands to Hollywood movies, marketers have breached the final frontier in their search for bigger, more affordable audiences. And on the other side of the tracks, porn sites are beginning to advertise in mainstream media. It's a big risk for these strange bedfellows.


When the U.S. Presidential campaigning began, attack ads came fast and furious.

Donald Trump attacking Jeb Bush.

Hillary Clinton attacking Bernie Sanders.

Ben Carson attacking Hillary Clinton.

But there was one attack ad in particular that got everybody's attention.

It was from Ted Cruz.

Senator Ted Cruz cruised right onto controversy with his Marco Rubio attack ad. (image source: usatoday)

The title was "Conservatives Anonymous."

By attack standards, it was pretty tame. But that wasn't why it generated so much controversy.

The reason was this: It was discovered the actress in the commercial had been a porn star.

Soft core porn actress Amy Lindsay. (image source: muthstruths.com)

Ted Cruz immediately pulled the commercial.

(image source: theatlantic)

It turns out the actress, Amy Lindsay, had responded to an open casting call, passed the audition, and was hired. Nobody in the Cruz campaign office had any idea about her past, and they blamed the production company for not vetting her properly.

Even though Lindsay had performed in soft-core films in the past, she had also acted in mainstream entertainment, including a role in Star Trek: Voyager.

She told the press she does not do hard-core porn, and was in fact, a conservative Christian.

Amy Lindsay talks about the controversy on CNN. (image source: CNN)

But just the whiff of porn in a mainstream commercial was enough to get it pulled immediately.

But what happens when a mainstream marketer advertises on a porn site?

The adult film industry has been disrupted by the unlimited availability of free online porn.

The Internet helped and hurt the porn industry. (image source: blog.aarp.org)

Meanwhile, the advertising industry is struggling to stretch limited marketing budgets.

The porn industry needs to find new revenue streams.

The advertising industry needs to find bigger and bigger audiences.

The porn world offers huge viewership.

Marketers need to reach big audiences at the lowest media costs possible.

Porn sites offer dirt-cheap ad rates.

Advertising… meet the porn world.

Once upon a time, pornography cost money.

You had to buy a magazine, or a video, or a ticket to an X-rated movie.

Most XXX shops have closed their doors due to the availability of free porn on the Internet. (image source: Getty Images)

Then porn moved online. Early sites would tease with a thumbnail photo or an 8-second clip, and the link would send you to a pay site.

Then, in 2005, this happened:

“Tube” sites made porn free and up-loadable. (image source: alexnoudalman)

It didn't take the porn world long to follow suit. Three big "tube" sites launched the next year. They were flooded with free content.  Much of that free content was pirated from pay-sites. Viewers not only had access to free porn, they could upload their own amateur videos to the sites.

It all led to a perfect storm in the porn industry in 2009.

Wide scale piracy + the increase in amateur porn + the unlimited availability of free porn… met the Great Recession.

Since then, traffic to pay-sites has plummeted.

DVD sales have practically disappeared.

Porn producers reported revenue drops of 50%, with some experiencing drops of 80%.

Production of porn films is reportedly down 75%.

Work for porn actors dried up.

Gigabytes of videos are being uploaded and streamed without any money changing hands.

The cost of porn has now reached zero.

As a result, selling porn has never been harder.

With all that bad news for the porn world, the irony is that online porn viewership has never been greater.

As a matter of fact, porn has been cited by some as the reason for the rapid growth of the Internet.

According to tech site Gizmodo, the world's top porn sites – Xvideos, LiveJasmin, YouPorn and PornHub – are on par with Google and Facebook for web traffic.

XVideos alone averages 4.4 billion page views per month – triple what CNN gets.

According to technology blog ExtremeTech, websites the size of YouPorn account for almost 2% of the Internet's total traffic - and there are dozens of porn sites on the same scale.

Which means it's not unrealistic to say up to 30% of the traffic on the Internet is porn-related.

Over 50% of that porn is now viewed on smartphones.

PornHub says the U.S. ranks #1 for page views, followed by the UK, India, then Canada.

I once sat beside a porn producer on an airplane. He told me that each U.S. state and every Canadian province has very specific tastes when it comes to porn. 

Porn sites like PornHub now offer detailed analytics. (image source: pornhub)

For example, there is an East Coast province that prefers porn where people are smoking in the videos above all other searches.

There an area of the country out west that searches for porn that involves "tickling" – and they search for that more frequently than all other search terms.

This kind of knowledge isn't anecdotal. And it isn't guesswork.

This research comes from the fact big porn sites have in-depth data analytics and highly refined algorithms. They know the average time spent on their sites is 10 minutes.

They know the average time spent on non-porn websites is less than 30 seconds. Therefore they understand the length of time spent on their sites can produce massive profits from ad revenue.

The reason they know this is because today's pornographers are software engineers.

Much of the world of porn is controlled by one network. It is called Mindgeek – and it's owned by a group of friends who met at Concordia University in Montreal in 2007.

Mindgeek is one of the biggest porn companies in the world. (image source: mindgeek)

It appears Mindgeek controls eight of the top 10 busiest porn sites in the world. It is similar to Amazon in book publishing – it's the dominant force.

According to Mindgeek, three of its top websites attract close to 100 million visitors and over 488 million page views – a day.

Last year, PornHub alone said it had over 21 billion visits, and close to 5 billion of those viewers were women. 87 billion videos were viewed.

PornHub is one of the most visited sites on the net. (image source: PornHub)

Now, tuck all those stats in your back pocket for a moment.

There is no doubt pornography is inching into the mainstream.

Sex tapes used to destroy careers, now they create them. Think of Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and Kim Kardashian. As a matter of fact, Kardashian's video has been watched over 147 million times on PornHub – making it the most viewed video in the history of the website.

Remember when sex tapes used to ruin careers?? (image source: ohnotheydidnt)

The Parents Television Council in the U.S. reported a 407% increase in the incidents of full nudity on TV compared to the previous year.

There is a clothing line called Porn Star.

Now you can dress like a porn star. (image source: brandneusense.com)

Many of the top porn stars have over one million Twitter followers.

Many porn stars have well over a million Twitter followers. (image source: twitter)

Erotic film actress Sasha Grey has crossed over and acted in Entourage and had a starring role in the mainstream film, Open Windows.

Porn actress Sasha Grey climbed through the porn window to act in mainstream movies. (image source: baiscopelk.com)

Porn star Ron Jeremy appears semi-regularly on ESPN, had a walk-on in Ghostbusters, and is the subject of a full-length documentary.

Even the Hedgehog himself is the subject of a documentary. (image source: ebay)

And porn superstar, Jenna Jameson, has voiced a version of herself on Family Guy, has voiced a character in a Grand Theft Auto game, her autobiography, How To Make Love Like A Porn Star, spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, she is the first porn actress to have a wax model at Madame Tussauds, she was interviewed in an Abercrombie & Fitch fashion magazine, and Jameson was even hired by Adidas to star in a video for its sneakers.

Jameson’s book was a NY Times bestseller.  (image source: theodyssey.com)
Jenna Jameson and her waxy self at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas. (image source: tucson.com)

The reality TV show titled Family Business, which ran from 2003 to 2006, followed adult film star and video director Seymour Butts around as he ran his porn empire.

Family Business was a reality TV show about the life of porn producer Seymour Butts. (image source: tucson)

It was Mr. Butts I sat beside on that plane, by the way.

And recently, there was a reality show called The Right Hand, which followed a small-town Canadian film student as he landed his first job as an assistant in the porn industry.

The Right Hand was a reality TV show about a young Canadian film student as he lands his first job in the porn industry. (image source: rockitpromo)

And if you want to continue connecting the dots when it comes to the subtle ways porn has been normalized, there is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition that brought soft core magazines out from under the mattress onto the coffee table and the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show is now a major broadcast event. Then there's the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon – with stores like Target carrying 50 Shades of Grey-themed products.

Even Target sold 50 Shades of Grey-themed merchandise. (image source: bigfrog104)

Even eBay has an adult category loaded with X-Rated material.

eBay has an Adult-Only category filled with XXX material. (image source: eBay)

With porn inching further and further into the everyday life, another interesting migration is happening.

Madison Avenue is inching toward pornography.

When pornography tilted towards free, it meant porn sites had to alter their business models. They could no longer rely on monthly subscriptions.

Therefore, the industry looked to advertising. Mindgeek, for example, is largely an ad network now. Yes, there are some monthly subscription options, but by and large, the site serves up free videos supported by advertising.

Mind geek sees itself primarily as an ad network now. (image source: mindgeek)

It's the Google business model. Give away a ton of free content, generate a huge audience, sell that audience to advertisers.

Mindgeek owns a company called TrafficJunky in Montreal.

Montreal-based Traffic Junky traffics ads across the Mindgeek porn network. (image source: trafficjunky)

TrafficJunky places ads across its network of porn sites, serving up three billion web and mobile ad impressions to 141 million porn visitors every day.

Until recently, most of those ads were for dating sites, male enhancement pills and casinos.

But that's slowly changing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks…

The one thing advertisers are always in search of is an audience. And because times are tough, they have to stretch their ad budgets to do more with less. The greatest number of eyeballs for the least amount of money is the Holy Grail.

In this digitally splintered world, it gets harder and harder to find big audiences. That's why events like the Super Bowl are so desirable, and so expensive.

Where else can you find 100 million people in one place at one time.

Weeelll, there is another place.

Porn sites.

So here we are at an interesting crossroad.

The porn world finds itself in need of revenue, and the ad world is in need of huge, affordable audiences.

Could mainstream advertisers be tempted to tiptoe into the world of porn?

Is it possible?

Well, it's more than possible, it's happening.

Eat24 is an online food delivery service in the U.S.

Eat24 is an online food delivery service. (image source: blog.eat24)

It represents over 30,000 restaurants in 1,500 cities.

You just email, text or use the handy Eat24 app, tap on the restaurant and the takeout food you want, and Eat24 will take care of all the details, handle the transaction and delivery it – for free.

The slogan:

Now there’s a slogan you can’t forget. (image source: eat24)

The company was started without any venture capital funding, so it had a limited budget and couldn't afford expensive traditional media advertising.

So that got the company thinking about porn sites.

When it did some research, it discovered 85% of porn was viewed between 7pm and 3am, which happened to coincide with Eat24's busiest delivery period.

When it looked at the top websites by traffic count, many of them were porn sites.

When it looked at the cost of running a campaign on Facebook, Twitter and Google, then compared running that same campaign on porn sites, Eat24 realized it could get more ad exposure than the big three combined - at roughly one-tenth the cost.

Next, Eat24 looked at all the ads on porn sites and realized they were just more porn. So in order to stand out, the company decided to go with humour.

So one ad said:

(image source: eat24)

Another one said:

(image source: eat24)

Meaning – order food and watch porn at the same time.

Then Eat24 submitted their ads to the porn network.

Surprisingly, the ads were rejected.

You're probably thinking it's pretty hard to get an ad rejected on a porn site, but it was one ad in particular: The one with the monkey in it. When the food delivery service called the porn tech support line to ask about the rejection, it was told porn sites do not accept any content containing animals.

Fair enough. The monkey was toast.

Eat24 experimented by putting its ads on the PornHub homepage page, and on the actual video landing pages – and discovered that five times as many people clicked on the banner ad when it was next to a video.

The overall result of the campaign? Tens of thousands clicked the ads and ordered food. There was a huge spike in orders and app downloads – especially late at night.

And Eat24 generated that business by spending 90% less than it would have spent on Google, Twitter or Facebook.

At that price, it was able to maintain its campaign for weeks – unlike on Google, where it would have spent its entire budget in just a few days.

What's more, 90% were first-time customers, so Eat24 reached an entirely new market.

And those customers kept coming back. Retention on porn banners was four times higher than the company's Facebook ads.

Eat24 gained a few other insights with their porn advertising.

First, its most successful ad showed a woman eating take-out in lingerie. Its second most successful ad was a close-up of a bacon sandwich.

Never underestimate the power of bacon.

The top three cities ordering food from porn sites were Chicago, Vegas and Washington DC.

New Yorkers ordered most of their food at lunchtime.

Interesting.

Washington DC ordered late at night.

And Houston, Texas, surprised everybody by doing most of its porn food ordering first thing in the morning.

There was an additional bonus, too. The mainstream press picked up on the fact Eat24 was advertising on porn sites, and ran several stories on the food delivery service – giving it even more reach and awareness.

In the end, Eat24 was thrilled with its porn site campaign, and according to its website, is still advertising there with great success.

Controversy fuelled their limited budget to get more attention.

And on top of it all, Eat24 coined a new word to describe the secret to its new advertising success:

Horngry.

As marketers toy with crossing the dangerous line into porn advertising, not every brand is able to get by the stigma.

But for some, it's a shorter hop.

For a long time now, the world of fashion advertising has used sex to sell. Many of those ads have included nudity and very suggestive imagery.

So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Diesel, the Italian fashion giant, has begun advertising on multiple porn sites.

Fashion giant Diesel advertises on porn sites because it gives the company global reach. (image source: mytotalretail.com)

When the company's PR manager was asked why his company would choose to advertise on PornHub, he simply said – because that's where people are.

Diesel advertised intimate underwear on porn sites because it wanted to reach customers while they had sex on their minds. (image source: pornhub)

He said it made sense because the Diesel campaign was advertising intimates and underwear to young, sexy people, and the company wanted to communicate with their customers when they had sex on their minds.

He also said - let's not pretend people don't go to porn sites. The fashion company wanted to honestly reflect the world we live in.

There was another practical marketing reason, too. Diesel is a global company, and it needs to talk to millions of people to be successful. PornHub offered 60 million daily visitors – at very affordable rates – and an increasing percentage of those visitors are women.

Diesel's advertising strategy is all about digital culture – which according to the company – includes dating apps, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram… and porn.

As AdWeek magazine pointed out, there has been a generational shift with regard to the stigma of watching porn.

According to the Globe & Mail, a survey showed that 40% of Canadian teenage boys in grades 7 to 11 frequently view porn. That means some of those boys are as young as 11 years old.

Kids no longer have to be 18 years or older to access adult sites. And when they grow up surrounded by it, it becomes normalized.

As a result, young consumers don't consider it taboo. And the majority of advertisers want young consumers.

Even upscale fashion designers are open to an association with porn.

Marc Jacobs recently gave a porn movie crew permission to film a scene in his Soho store location.

Leading fashion retailer Marc Jacobs gave a porn crew permission to film in one of this New York locations. (image source: thechoosybeggar.com)

According to Forbes Magazine, it was a calculated decision: In the jaded world of fashion and entertainment, association with porn is becoming a way to demonstrate "edginess."

Groupon, the online coupon company, recently offered 60-minute walking tours of elaborate adult film sets in San Francisco, as well as tours of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

Groupon offered coupons to tour porn film studios. (image source: groupon)

MeUndies.com is a subscription-based underwear company that's also based in LA.

This online underwear company launched itself on a Canadian porn site. (image source: theartofcharm.com)

It delivers underwear to you – in one hour – should you suddenly need underwear in one hour. It will also send you new underwear on a monthly basis. And as a signature move, it tucks condoms into the packages.

The start-up got a lot of attention not long ago by deciding to do its launch advertising on a Canadian porn site called Paintbottle.com – (are you starting to get the idea that Canada is a porn hotbed? Don't blame you.)

While the porn site seems to have vanished, MeUndies.com was happy with the results. When asked why it chose to advertise on an adult film site, founder Jonathon Shokrian said they don't mind controversy at all.

Like Eat24, controversy got them lots of attention with a small budget.

With half the Internet-connected populous watching adult content, the company felt it only made sense to advertise there.

Advertising on pornography sites is one thing, but French fashion company Shai went even further.

Fashion brand Shai created XXX videos of models wearing its clothes, stripping and engaging in hardcore sex. (image source: tucson)

It created X-rated video catalogues showing models wearing its clothes, then slowly undressing, and engaging in actual hard-core sex. The theme: "There's no reason to be shy."

Before the models stripped, viewers could mouse over small green dots that would freeze the video and bring up price and sizing information about the clothing.

Within the first four months, over two million people from 117 countries had watched the videos.

The strategy, according to the fashion company, was to create notoriety.

Clearly, advertising and porn are no longer strange bedfellows.

Soon, Hollywood would come knocking…

Temptation is a powerful urge.

There's always a tipping point that leads people – and industries – to cross the fault line.

The porn industry gave into the temptation of the global reach of the Internet, but free porn overtook pay porn, and now it needs advertising revenue.

The advertising industry has been racked with contracting budgets and punishing recessions, and now finds itself handling prickly clients demanding they do more with less.

A call the porn industry is happy to answer.

Huge audiences delivered at dirt-cheap prices is a powerful temptation, and Madison Avenue might need a 12-step program to resist it.

But that resistance is already showing signs of crumbling.

Meanwhile, the porn industry is giving into another temptation – it's polishing its act to attract advertisers.

Next week in part two, we'll talk about how the biggest porn sites are looking for acceptance by advertising in mainstream media, sponsoring sports teams, planting trees, saving whales, and even granting scholarships.

Porn product-placement companies are even popping up.

There was a time when you could say you read Playboy for the articles.

Now, you can say you watch porn for the fashion ads…

…when you're under the influence.