Unable to use traditional means, porn sites lure the media - and consumers - with stunts
Normally, he’s a 27-year-old dialysis technician living in Minnesota, where he spends his days tending to the needs of men and women with kidney problems. But soon John Brutal, not his real name, will shift his focus from renal to penile, having just been chosen in a US contest to appear as Donald Trump in a pornographic film.
The state-to-state search for an x-rated POTUS proxy was launched by xHamster, the bronze medallist of the world’s most popular porn sites, hoping that the ensuing publicity can push them ahead of XVideos and Pornhub. Holding open auditions, the site asked its millions of daily visitors to get behind one of three finalists, reassuring those dismayed by November’s surprise election result that the new pornographic president “will be selected by popular vote – not the electoral college.”
John Brutal audition to become xHamster's President Trump [xHamster Blog]
Now faced with the prospect of, ahem, entering the Oval Office for real while surrounded by adult entertainment professionals and an unforgiving camera lens, Brutal appears to be rather more upbeat than the man he’ll be portraying. “I’m just looking at it as any other job, except this one I have to be naked and having sex with someone on camera,” Brutal told the US website Vocativ. “There are some nerves to that, but I have pretty good confidence. If I fail, then I got a free trip out to California and it was fun.” And if the marketing ploy falls flat, it won’t be long until another one comes along to loudly grab headlines and rub your face in it.
While pornographer may not be the world’s oldest profession, human beings have been craving and creating images of sex and the body for millions of years. For 500 years or so, according to most historians, the professional production of images that both challenge proscribed morality and arouse those viewing it have become one of the most important industries on the planet. But in the modern age of the Internet, the adult film industry has been undercut by the unlimited availability of free and easily accessible videos and images.
The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. The adult film industry remains one of the most adaptive in the world, understanding at each technological development since the industrial revolutions that sex and innovation make for happy bedfellows. Pornographers were early adopters of everything the information super highway could offer, propelling online commerce and search engine optimisation to boom. But with the busty ladies came the inevitable dotcom bust, a market saturated to the point that even the most niche of sexual tastes, by which we mean anything legal and consented to, is catered for by more search page results than the average person casually searching on Google would ever sift through.
A piece of tape covers a laptop's webcam as a porn site of 'webcam girls' is displayed onscreen [Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images]
But everything changed with YouTube. In the early days of the 21st century, online porn sites would try to entice users with static thumbnail images or brief clips, linking on to a paywall that promised an Aladdin’s cave of digital depravity. But YouTube arrived in 2005, fundamentally shifting the average consumer’s expectations of how online video streaming works. Quickly, online pornographers followed suit, creating massive online archives of short clips, available for free, with comment sections for those with a need to express their online vitriol in a new forum and links to share what you’re watching on Twitter and Facebook – presumably for the self-employed and retired.
User generated content, billed as ‘amateur porn’ also took off, with everyone with an interest in exhibitionism and a smartphone now undercutting the professionals and providing the big three Tube sites with entirely free pornography with which to hawk to unique page viewers. Just as print media has struggled to close the Pandora’s box, adult media has seen its paying traffic plummet, with production of porn films limping at just a quarter of what it used to be, despite online porn viewership never greater than ever before.
According to research, the world’s top porn sites have web traffic just as strong as Google and Facebook, with one of the big three Tube sites mentioned above averaging 4.4bn page views per month. And in the quest to stay ahead of the competition, their marketing teams game the media.
Unable to take out adverts through Google’s notoriously watchful and restrained platform, which outright bans the use of “text, image, audio, or video of graphic sexual acts intended to arouse,”the marketing depart at porn sites go guerrilla. Stunt publicity campaigns, ranging from data-driven breakdowns of how the Late Late Toy Show interrupts web traffic in Ireland to selecting a Trump substitute for a series of erotic videos, is grist to the mill for online media companies, happy to see a bump in page views thanks to the old reliable – sex sells. It’s how that sex is packaged that matters, with press releases that teeter towards crossing the lines of impropriety, but whose blows can be softened with salacious wordplay and tongue-in-cheek punning.
“We want to push the conversation into the general public as something that’s acceptable to talk about, while letting people know that watching porn shouldn’t be an underground activity that’s to be seen as shameful,” said Pornhub vice president Corey Price, to AdWeek in 2014, just as the site was celebrating prominent product placement in the Joseph Gordon Levitt-directed film Don Jon. “Everyone does it, why not just bring that out in the open? The reason it causes a stir is due to an already accepted set of social norms.”
All’s fair in self-love and war, and everything is up for grabs in the battle for stunt marketing. That’s why xHamster temporarily blocked all IP addresses based in North Carolina in April last year when the state enacted laws that banning trans people from using the bathroom of their chosen gender. It’s why Brendan Dassey, the pitiable figure featured in Netflix’s Making a Murderer, will get a free trip to Wrestlemania at xHamster’s expense if he is ever released.
These such stunts don’t come cheap, though. In October 2012, Pornhub launched an event called ‘Save the Boobs’, a donation drive tied to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The company offered to donate money for every 30 videos viewed in breast-related sections of the website. By the end of the month, almost 75m videos had been watched, equalling approximately $24,700 worth of donations, which the company tripled to $75,000, which the company split among several charities after the first one they offered the money to turned it down.
This kind of branding strategy is working, allowing online porn retailers, whether for good or for bad, to normalise their place in the popular culture of the web. It’s paid back, in more ways than just web traffic, as non-x-rated brands have also turned to the Tube sites as a legitimate place to do business. In January 2016, fashion brand Diesel caused a stir when it announced it would position its adverts on Pornhub, describing the results as “incredible.” According to co-founder Renzo Rosso, the ads, running beside some of the most hardcore images on the Internet, saw a “31% increase” in Diesel’s web traffic.
This Diesel campaign ran on Pornhub in January 2016 [Diesel]
““We all go on websites like Pornhub, you know?” Diesel’s creative director Nicola Formichetti told Dazed, which broke the story. “So before you start jerking off maybe you can stop and look at our new pants and shoes and, just laugh! It’s funny!”
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny said we need to have a national conversation about pornography. Part of that means understanding how we consume it or talk to children about it. But part of that conversation means understanding that this is a business, that it wants to manipulate all of us to squeeze money out of us. And when it comes to gaming the system, the pornographers are always one step ahead.