The mainstream has been using porn for its benefit for years. Every sweeps week the in-depth porn stories roll out on all the newsmagazines and talk shows. Sex sells, everyone knows that. But selling sex — hardcore sex — via conventional outlets is tricky. But it's not impossible.
No one would know Mary Carey if it hadn't been for her California gubernatorial run, orchestrated by Kick Ass Pictures owner Mark Kulkis. Adam Glasser found his way into America's living rooms through his Showtime reality show, "Family Business." And of course there's Jenna Jameson — what hasn't she done?
The Times They Are A-Changin'
While porn enjoyed some social acceptability in the early-'70s when it was en vogue to see "Deep Throat" in theaters, the taboo soon returned and, when home videocassette players entered the scene, porn was once again relegated to backrooms and viewed behind closed doors.
A landmark in adult's coming back out to the world was Vivid's high-profile billboards in the 1990s on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. Shocking at the time, Vivid co-chairman Steven Hirsch credits the move as a watershed moment in branding the company.
"It was the first time there was ever a billboard promoting an adult company," Hirsch said. "It got a ton of attention. I think that was the first time that we saw tangible results from something that we had done for the brand."
Vivid has gone on to become the industry's most famous company, and marketing efforts today are as aggressive as ever. Last month the company opened up a "25 Years of Vivid" exhibit at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in Hollywood, which showcased two and a half decades of the company's box covers and art. On Valentine's Day, Showtime debuted "Deeper Throat," Vivid's third premium cable TV series. These are just the latest pieces in the ongoing Vivid marketing plan.
"We did press kits before anybody did an adult press kit," Hirsch said. "As a result, we started getting stories written in magazines and newspapers and opportunities on TV that nobody else was getting. We then went out and hired a high-powered PR firm out of New York and they continued to help us push the brand."
From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)
For smaller companies with more limited resources, there are three methods that work better than the rest: creativity, persistence and old-fashioned good luck.
One of the most successful crossover adult products on the market today is the bedroom gear made by Liberator. Their sex furniture has found its way into the mainstream consciousness through a combination of targeted marketing and some fortunate breaks.
From its inception six years ago, Liberator purchased ads in magazines like Rolling Stone, Men's Health and Esquire.
Then a couple of years ago a call came in requesting some product for a film. Next thing you know, Barbra Streisand was carrying around one of their products in "Meet the Fockers." Last year, Liberator's products had such a big role in Joel and Ethan Coen's "Burn After Reading" that they should be SAG-eligible. Expect to see more of the products in "Jack Goes Boating," which Philip Seymour Hoffman is directing and producing.
"There's a lot of secrets to the best winning pie, so to speak, and a lot of it's luck, a lot of it's timing," said Joshua Maurice, Liberator vice president. "A lot of what happens to a consumer goods product is outside of your control."
That doesn't mean a company should sit back and wait for opportunities to present themselves. Maurice said Liberator now has contacts with the right people who place products in movies. They also have the advantage of being that rare adult product that isn't explicitly adult, allowing them to open doors that other companies may be able to slip through in the future.
"We've been lucky, because our product is not sexual until contextualized," Maurice said. "When you look at a wedge or a ramp, you don't really understand it's for sex until someone tells you, and that's allowed us to cross over barriers and open doors. In 'Burn After Reading' they never address what the ramp is, and George Clooney has it all over the movie — carrying it in his bedroom, stuffing it into his car — when you watch the movie in the theater, half the theater is laughing its ass off because they know exactly what it is, and the other half is looking around going, 'What the fuck is that thing, why is everyone laughing at it?'"
They have also taken the opportunity to put their products in chain stores that may want to carry more adult products, but don't want to offend their customers. This includes availability on websites like Walgreens.com and Amazon.
"There is a recognition by big retail that it's the last frontier, the last great land grab," he said. "If the Targets and the Walmarts and the drug stores aren't capturing a portion of the adult market, they're missing out on $15 billion a year. There is a sense on their part to continue to push the boundaries of what their consumers will accept from an adult perspective regarding merchandising their stores. They're mainstreaming the industry as fast as they possibly can, but there are barriers. What we're trying to do is present a product line that makes it easy to adopt so that their consumers aren't alienated in the process."
Hooray for Hollywood
The adult industry predictably fawned over director Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" last year, and it appropriately included a couple of well-known adult stars who have successfully made the crossover from hardcore to Hollywood: Traci Lords and Katie Morgan.
Morgan quit performing in adult at the end of 2007 thanks to an increased presence in mainstream productions, beginning with appearances on HBO's "Pornucopia" in 2004.
"It just went from there," she said. "It's like a slow, rolling snowball. I kept getting more mainstream and less adult to the point where it was just easier to say, 'I guess I'm done with that and I'm going to just keep doing this now.' The ratio tipped."
While she said she didn't have any specific advice for adult stars looking to make a similar progression, she did say that it seems to be getting easier.
"It's getting more and more mainstream and people are popping up all over the place in little movie bits and music videos all the time," she said. "It seems to just happen when it happens."
On the other side of things, mainstream coverage absolutely exploded with Hustler Video's "Who's Nailin' Paylin?" last year. The combination of a perfectly- timed parody on the vice presidential candidate put out by politically-minded Larry Flynt and starring one of the industry's most eloquent stars made it one of the most successful adult titles in years.
While porn scripts are often the butt of jokes, Hustler Video Director of Marketing Kristin Spillers says releasing a copy of the screenplay to gossip TV powerhouse TMZ is what busted the dam on mainstream coverage of the movie. Almost immediately every media outlet in the country seemed to be talking about "Who's Nailin' Paylin?" Smartly, industry veteran Lisa Ann was cast in the lead, giving Hustler a media savvy star to help promote the title.
"Without Lisa Ann it would have been a completely different story," Spillers said. "She's so awesome with media, she's so well-spoken and she can answer questions off the top of her head. She doesn't get nervous, she's very organized, very professional — we couldn't have asked for a better actress in that role."
Show Me the Money!
While mainstream inclusion is all fine and dandy and puts a smile on every publicist's face, how does it affect the bottom line? A few years ago Shane's World was the subject of a major article in Rolling Stone and later featured in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog and has received ongoing coverage of its "College Invasion" series in particular. The company's former VP of sales (and current VP of New Project Development at Girlfriends Films) Megan Stokes says that coverage would certainly result in a sales spike, but that it was long-term branding that was the real goal.
"What happens is the next time people go to the store, it's just like when you see a commercial on TV, it's brand recognition," Stokes said. "The average consumer is overwhelmed by the amount of product out there. I think creating the recognition adds validity to your brand."
Lisa Massaro, U.S. editorial manager for Club Media, echoed similar sentiments. Club's magazines have appeared in films and TV shows such as "The Wire," "Oz," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and several episodes of "The Sopranos," but she said it's nearly impossible to track the actual sales impact due to reruns and rentals.
"We hope that a full-screen shot of a Club cover in 'Rock Star' or the two-minute focus of attention in a hit like 'Little Miss Sunshine' will help make a mainstream audience familiar with our brand," Massaro said, "and hopefully they'll choose a Club title over the other publications the next time they go to purchase an adult magazine."
The Final Push
Hirsch said that part of Vivid's success was that, from the very beginning, the company was dedicated to promotion.
"Twenty-five years ago, most of the people in the adult business didn't even want to admit they were in the business," he said. "They were afraid that maybe the IRS would come knocking at their door or that they would have other legal issues to deal with, and we said right from the beginning we weren't afraid to go out and talk about the company and talk about the types of movies we made."
Today, most adult companies are trying to find a way to brand their products in the mainstream. From Digital Playground creating R-rated versions of their "Pirates" movies for the Blockbuster crowd to Sasha Grey starring in Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" to Stewie seeing his first issue of Hustler on "Family Guy," the crossover quest pushes forward.
"Any time you get the company's name out there in the media in a positive way or something that's at least interesting, that's of course going to be positive," Spillers said. "I think it helps sales and customer loyalty. You want to have the general public — consumers — interested in what you're doing, that's the best way to get the word out there. We just keep trying to come up with fun ideas that we think people would be interested in and things that we think we could do well and would be fun."