Penetrating Into Mainstream

Colin Rowntree

When XBIZ World requested that I write an article about the remarkable results adult marketers have when achieving mainstream attention in connection with their websites, services and hard good products, I thought it would be a great idea to co-write this piece with Wasteland’s longtime publicist, Brian Gross, who has been one of the keys to our success in “crossing over” into mainstream media over the years. Our greatest success in the last year in these efforts has been getting positive mainstream media attention on our now 11-year-old erotica and entertainment for women,

Due to the way we present that product and the tasteful nature of the content, we have managed to be covered by ABC’s “Nightline,” Time magazine, the London Sunday Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on dozens of primary market television and radio talk shows.

One of the truisms I have always found reliable is media coverage begets more media coverage.

Of course, it being “erotica for women” very much makes it “not porn” to the traditional outlets, and the outrageous success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy certainly had a lot to do with legitimizing it and making is “titillating but acceptable” to the editors and producers in mainstream media. But, from what I am seeing with other companies’ success, this is certainly not limited to marketing “for women” adult websites to the masses.

Great examples of companies that have done exceptionally well into penetrating mainstream (pun intended) are the pleasure product company, LELO, and the studios Digital Playground and Elegant Angel.

In the case of LELO, while on my way to a flight after the XBIZ 360 show in January I popped into Brookstone at LAX to kill a little time before boarding and was delighted to see a four-foot wide by seven-foot high full retail display of the LELO personal massager line.

I asked the young man working there how many of these somewhat pricey units (average $110 retail) were selling a week, and he proudly exclaimed, “a week? I’m not sure, but at least 12 per day. After AA batteries, those are by far our best selling products at Brookstone!”

On the studio side, Digital Playground’s enormous success with “Pirates” a few years ago literally opened mainstream DVD distribution to adult films with high production values, “non-porny” packaging and compelling storylines.

This year’s award-sweeping film by Graham Travis (Elegant Angel), “Wasteland” is already gaining large market attention due to its exceptional film quality, plot and acting performances.

‘The idea for ‘Wasteland’ was originally as a mainstream feature. But, the idea itself wasn’t structured to work in either mainstream or adult,” Travis said. “It was just the story I wanted to tell, and in the style of filmmaking that I am inspired by. Personally, my creative influences are drawn from both, adult and mainstream, and I believe there is a way to tell dramatic sexual stories that can appeal to both audiences.

“‘Wasteland’ was in its totality a very personal enterprise, with the support of Patrick Collins who made it possible to begin with,” he said. “I did not put too much thought into the commercial targeting of both a mainstream and adult audience. However, I do believe this type of genre of movie has the ability to cross that divide if done well enough. I think a lot of mainstream erotic programming is lacking in that respect. Mainstream moviemaking is full of great dramatic sexual stories. There is no reason to me why an adult movie cannot tell a great dramatic and sexual story that also includes full sex scenes, that can appeal beyond the ordinary adult audience.”

Even the “darker side” has gained a foothold in mainstream with the James Franco documentary “Kink,” an inside look at my old friend Peter Acworth’s BDSM empire being premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Hardcore Bondage Sex in Utah with Robert Redford’s blessing? Who would have thunk it even just a few short years ago!

So, this now begs the question, how did these companies do that?

For the short answer, packaging and PR, I am turning this over to Gross for his comments on that process.

Gross, president of BSG PR, has been in the service of media and public relations for more than 20 years. Gross’ clients have included,, Gene Simmons, Sasha Grey, Adam & Eve, Penthouse, Joanna Angel, Pink Visual and Nina Hartley, among many others.

Gross says: “It’s not hard for companies to seek guidance when it comes to the “mainstreaming” of adult. Simply look at the place where you get your news from. Study not what the story is, but what went into making this a story. Companies, through the opening of doors thanks to the likes of their predecessors who broke ground and took risks that could have done more harm than good but ultimately succeeded, found certain ways to package their products and tell stories that would work for a mainstream audience.

“In 1999, when I was hired by Steven Hirsch, Founder of Vivid, to take the reigns of his PR department from David Schlesinger (who I would work closely with as he began to expand Vivid’s online presence), it was made clear to me what my goals and objectives would be (make Vivid a larger voice in the mainstream world) and what tools I had to do this with (high-end movies and the most beautiful women in the world, The Vivid Girls). From there, it was made clear the sky was the limit, and we would look into every possible opportunity that existed. Work with Kid Rock at the Grammy Awards? Done. Create a relationship with Marc Ecko and Ecko Unlimited? Done. Put the Vivid Girls on E!, CNN, VH-1, MTV, and other mainstream television outlets, in the U.S. and around the world? yes.

“Everyone who loved what Vivid stood for ultimately took interest in what business could be done. It was exciting, and everyone within the company witnessed new avenues to go down, and revenue streams to work with. Our challenges of the mainstreaming of adult have no changed, as competition, and working with those who want to work with us are still some of the basic hurdles we look to jump over to reach the finish line.”

One of the truisms I have always found reliable is media coverage begets more media coverage.

Although everyone would love to have the next widget or gadget that gets on the cover of a major magazine or is covered by broadcast media, it’s a long process to get there that takes innovation, creativity, persistence, patience and hopefully having a top-notch publicist that is well-connected with mainstream media.

As an example of this from my days, working as a musician and conductor in the 1980s, the following story pretty much sums it up. Among various other gigs, I was the director of the Cape Cod Retired Men’s Choral Society, a group of about 50 retired men that rehearsed weekly to prep concerts to play out in nursing homes and school auditoriums in the area.

Knowing we needed to get some media coverage on these guys (they were so cute in their suspenders and bowties. the youngest member was 83!), I contacted the little weekly Barnstable newspaper where we were based and invited their reporter to come and watch a rehearsal. She brought a camera, shot some stills, interviewed some of the guys, and ran a half page feature on it the next week. Within a few days, I got a call from the much bigger daily Cape Cod Times that wanted to come cover the group in their Sunday edition, which they did that week.

On Monday, I got a call from the Boston Globe. Same request and it went front page of the Arts section. The following day: The New York Times sent a crew to cover the group which lead to a two-page photo feature. Then Time magazine ... and then “60 Minutes.”

Obviously the adult industry has no easy way to use a happy singing group of cute 90-year-old men to lure the media and consumers to their website for herbal performance enhancement upsells, but the point is, if you have a truly clever and catchy website, movie or pleasure product that can grab the attention of local coverage, this can and often will be picked up by larger and larger media outlets as the word gets out. Mainstream media is always looking for something unique to drive their readership, and there is an unspoken symbiosis between mainstream media and adult. They love to cover adult as long as it’s not “porn” or “tawdry” enough to create a stink with their advertisers and stockholders. As the old adage goes, the difference between “porn” and “erotica” is “lighting.”

This now leads to the practice of “Two Degrees of Separation” in which the products you market in mainstream are tasteful, but sexy enough to get it covered by mainstream and then grab the eye of the consumer as something worth checking out. This then brings the consumer to your door where, lo and behold!, there are more things to buy! And some of them are not quite as subdued, but sure look like a lot of fun!

Again using LELO at Brookstone at LAX as an example in the pleasure products sector, a typical scenario is business traveller Suzy from Kansas buys a vibrator at Brookstone. The first adult toy she ever had purchased (blushing as she signed the credit card slip), but as it came from Brookstone, it can’t be “that dirty!”

Suzy, after discovering the joy her new device has brought her, goes online to see what other things might be out there and ends up, via a Google search of “LELO”, at Adam and Eve’s website. Yes! Still tasteful, but lots of other toys and gadgets to choose from. After reading “Fifty Shades Of Grey” for the third time, Suzy buys a Rabbit Vibrator (“it was on ‘Sex and the City.’ It can’t be that dirty,” she muses) and a fuzzy blindfold at Adam and Eve. She has now stuck a toe in the water of “real sex toys” and now that the BDSM bug has bitten, ends up at and is ordering CBT gear and a pro-grade leather flogger to use on her hubby who she has now wearing a diaper.

Softcore in many instances is like a “gateway” to more explicit products, films and websites. Sort of like pot is a gateway to heroin! (kidding, but you know what I mean). Or, in clinical psychological therapy terms, it is the use of “systematic desensitization” which gradually introduces situations people fear and once they are comfortable with them, lead to more intense experiences.

In short, when developing a “Two Degrees of Separation” strategy, take some time to create branded content or products that your mother would not have a stroke seeing, and have these as your vanguard into mainstream, leading the consumers back into the rest of your product line or websites (that probably would give mom a stroke!)

Brian Gross adds: “One cannot underestimate creativity in adult, the proper ways and means of marketing 101, the styles and necessities of branding, and everything that goes into making a quality product that will entice new buyers, and keep consistent buyers still wanting more. The strongest brands, in any area, keep their audience wanting more, keep their product consistent, and maintain high quality.”

Conclusions? As another old adage goes, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” very much sums up much of the necessary strategy for reaching into mainstream with adult products and services. A combination of tasteful and titillating, yet “not dirty” packaging and content, combined with creative and consistent use of PR lay the foundation to cross the bridge to the massive opportunities that await in “polite society.”

Colin Rowntree is founder and CEO of, the Internet’s oldest and most popular BDSM and alternative sexuality site. Since launching Wasteland in 1994, Rowntree has developed a network of sites that encompasses the full breadth of adult business sectors, from content production and distribution to affiliate program management, mobile content delivery to transaction processing, just to name a handful.