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Virgin Flirts With Porn

Rodger Jacobs
"We don't carry porno like that," the clerk at the Orlando, Fla., Virgin Megastore huffed into the phone when asked if the retail outlet stocked DVD titles from Jenna Jameson or Peach. But at the Grapevine Mills Megastore, a popular tourist destination for visitors arriving from the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in Texas, the clerk was heartily enthusiastic about the store's abundant offering of softcore adult DVDs.

"We have a really nice selection," the young man eagerly reported. "We carry some of Jenna Jameson's titles, yes, and we have stuff by Playboy and Peach, and we even have some of the 'Girls Gone Wild' series."

Virgin refers to these sections of their Megastores as The Adult Zone. Customers browsing for music, movies, books and electronics can find an Adult Zone in every Virgin Megastore in the United States except for Salt Lake City, Orlando and Miami. In a store situated in ultra-conservative Anaheim, Calif., adult products are carried "behind the counter," a clerk told XBiz.

"We did not do any press push-out on the Adult Zone in the Virgin Megastores," a press contact for Virgin Entertainment Group, North America, told XBiz. "The San Francisco location expanded to offer that department in December 2003, but it was part of a bigger story, so we did not focus on just that particular section."

The "bigger story" is that while many other music and video retailers have closed their doors or are battling to stay alive and relevant, Sir Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group, decided in 2003 to "invest in the development of a new cutting-edge retail concept" by expanding Virgin's range of products and services to include items that "appeal to our core customers' lifestyles."

Virgin's product expansion included imported pop culture fashion, foods, DVDs and gadgets, band merchandise, vintage music T-shirts, collectable concert prints, artist-endorsed fashion brands, "the broadest array of movies" and "a zone dedicated to gay lifestyle."

Virgin began in the 1970s with a student magazine and a small mail-order record company. The brand's growth since then has been impressively fast, but the challenges and competition from the Internet has forced heavy-hitting retailers like Branson to constantly devise new strategies in order to stave off extinction. When the billionaire British entrepreneur set his sights on rejuvenating sales at San Francisco's Virgin Megastore, part of the strategy he shrewdly employed included stocking softcore adult movies.

Adult Star Appearances
The week-long celebration of the "rebirth" of the San Francisco outlet in December 2003 — the store opened in 1995 — included not only a personal appearance by Branson himself but a special appearance by Sin City contract stars Aurora Snow and Hannah Harper, who signed autographs, posed for Polaroid snaps and sold their DVDs.

Seven months later, in July 2004, Vivid Girls Mercedez, Tawny Roberts and Sunrise Adams introduced the new book "How to Have a XXX Sex Life: The Ultimate Vivid Guide" in a celebration held at the Hollywood Virgin Megastore.

The kick-off for Jenna Jameson's multi-city book tour began at the Virgin Megastore in New York's Times Square in August 2004.

"We didn't do any of the press announcements for the Jenna in-store appearances," Virgin's press liaison told XBiz in another attempt to distance the retail giant from the adult material it carries. "Her PR team took those on."

Regardless of who assumed the press responsibilities, Branson clearly understood the bottom line value of hosting appearances in some of his stores by a XXX pop culture icon like Jameson.

"Virgin looks for opportunities where it can offer something better, fresher and more valuable, and then it seizes them," a segment of the company's mission statement reads. "Virgin often moves into areas where the customer has traditionally received a poor deal, and where the competition is complacent."

Applying that mission statement to the concept of Virgin's Adult Zones begs the following question: When is the last time the Vivid Girls or a gay porn company like Jet Set held a celebration and a meet-and-greet at a Wherehouse outlet? The answer, of course, is rarely or never because the Virgin Megastores have been branded more aggressively than the competition, and the denizens of Porn Valley recognize that fact when it comes time to consider in-store promotions.

Virgin was instrumental in promoting Vivid's Porn Star Ball Tour in 2003. That same year, when Traci Lords' memoir "Underneath It All" debuted on The New York Times extended bestseller list, literally hundreds of fans lined up on East 14th Street in Manhattan for her signing at Virgin. The Times noted that "men, women and couples of most ages and ethnicities" showed up on a blazingly hot day to meet the former underage porn star.

"Though some thanked her for speaking out about the sexual abuse she suffered as an adolescent," the Times noted, "not everyone seemed to be there to celebrate the author's current incarnation as a healer. Others turned to the books' photos, which are somewhat more livelier than those in Hillary Clinton's 'Living History.'"

On Election Day 2004, adult video director Seymore Butts and porn starlet Mari Possa distributed free Seymore DVDs to anyone who showed up at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square with proof of having voted.

"We'd like them to say they voted for Kerry," Seymore said at the time. "But if they voted for Bush and come to get a free Seymore Butts DVD... well, that's a little telling, isn't it?"

The Times Square Virgin franchise also was the kick off site for the national promotional tour for the DVD release of "Being Ron Jeremy" on March 15.

There also is a growing market for re-edited and re-packaged R-rated versions of adult movies for mainstream outlets like the Virgin Megastores, Tower Video, The Wherehouse, Circuit City, Best Buy, Fry's Electronics, Movies Unlimited and many others. The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) estimates that of the 60,000 retail outlets in the U.S. that stock home video, 25,000 carry adult titles.

Playboy, "Girls Gone Wild" parent company Mantra Entertainment and Peach have enjoyed lasting success with their softcore offerings in high-profile stores, and companies like Nectar Entertainment have jumped on the bandwagon, too.

Brett Reez, Nectar's vice president of sales, told XBiz that "there are certain stores that can only carry those [softcore] versions." When Nectar's R&D efforts revealed that there is a demand for high-end softcore products in the marketplace, the company re-cut and re-packaged six formerly hardcore titles and began shipping "very significant orders" to mass merchants. The softer versions of Nectar's re-edits show nothing between the belly button and the kneecap and there is no visible penetration.

But regardless of the Virgin's interest in stocking adult products, company spokespersons were consistently unavailable for comment, leaving the question unanswered as to why Virgin never did "a press pushout" for their Adult Zones.

"These are very sensitive times," says Andrew Munn, manager of public affairs for the VSDA, adding that from a PR perspective, it's not always good to saturate this information in all media.

"It's all softer stuff and cable-rated titles but some anti-porn consumers don't draw a distinction between hardcore and softcore," he said.

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