Sex Toy Manufacturers Aggressively Pursue Mainstream Marketing

Alex Henderson

Sex toys have been a lucrative, profitable part of the adult entertainment industry for decades. But in recent years, sex toys have — much like BDSM — become increasingly mainstream. More and more, sex toy manufacturers have been looking to mainstream outlets like The New York Times and Cosmopolitan for publicity. And for major sex toy providers such as Doc Johnson, Lovehoney and Jimmyjane, mainstream exposure is not an afterthought — it has become a high priority.

Founded in 1976, the North Hollywood, Calif.-based Doc Johnson has been a fixture in the adult industry. But these days, the sex toy giant is seeking mainstream exposure much more forcefully than it did in the past. Sunny Rodgers, Doc Johnson’s marketing director, asserted, “We are pretty aggressive this year with our mainstream marketing. Approximately 50 percent of our budget in 2015 is geared towards mainstream advertising. We know that the more we can build the visibility of our brand, the more consumers will look for Doc Johnson products when making purchases.”

In the Manhattan of the 1970s and 1980s, sex toys were discreetly, quietly purchased in the underground Times Square sex shops of 42nd Street.

In the Manhattan of the 1970s and 1980s, sex toys were discreetly, quietly purchased in the underground Times Square sex shops of 42nd Street. In the Manhattan of the 2000s, vibrators were a topic of conversation on HBO’s ultra-popular “Sex and the City” — and sex toys’ mainstream exposure has increased even more since then. “Sex Toys are 100 percent more mainstream now than they ever have been in the past,” Rodgers observed. “This is due to the commercialization of sex toys, especially on TV in ‘Masters of Sex,’ ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Broad City,’ just to name a few. Pleasure products are now thought of as more acceptable and not as taboo as they were in the past. And we’ve found that more mainstream vendors are carrying our products now: bridal shops, boutique gift shops, smoke shops, etc.”

“Fifty Shades of Grey” — first the wildly popular E.L. James’ novel from 2011, and now, the film adaptation — has brought considerable mainstream attention to BDSM and sex toys. And the U.K.-based Lovehoney has benefited from “Fifty Shades’” popularity with the “Fifty Shades”-themed sex toys line (the Official Pleasure Collection) it launched in 2012. Neal Slateford, co-owner of Lovehoney, noted, “’Fifty Shades of Grey’ — and in particular, our Official Pleasure Collection — has enjoyed an unprecedented media blitz in recent months thanks in part to the ‘Fifty Shades’ movie. Every time a new trailer was released, we experienced a spike in sales — and by the time the movie was released, we had sold 1 million units of Fifty Shades of Grey pleasure products…Winning the official ‘Fifty Shades’ license was a huge moment for Lovehoney. It has allowed us to introduce our brand to new territories all over the world.”

Lovehoney also enjoyed valuable mainstream exposure when it was the focus of the reality show, “Frisky Business,” that aired on Netflix in 2014. “Mainstream exposure allows Lovehoney to reach new markets and more potential customers,” Slateford asserted. “As sex toys are becoming more mainstream, they are quickly becoming the go-to gift for people to get their partners for birthdays, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. This trend, coupled with the immeasurable hype for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ means that items which were once considered unusual or ‘kinky’ are becoming commonplace in many people’s bedrooms.”

Molly Murphy, director of marketing and public relations for Jimmyjane, noted that when the company unveiled a new BDSM/fetish line earlier this year, mainstream marketing and the release of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ film were both great for sales. Jimmyjane President Robert Rheaume was interviewed on CBS “This Morning,” and the company received exposure in mainstream outlets ranging from E! News to Cosmopolitan to Wired magazines. “As a result,” Murphy noted, “we saw a huge increase in orders and could barely keep the new items in stock. We find the mainstream press has a big impact on sales, especially when launching a new item.”

Jimmyjane has also enjoyed the benefits of mainstream exposure by launching promotional campaigns with everyone from Swiss designer Yves Béhar to the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. “In a collaboration,” Murphy observed, “you are connecting two synergic brands. It is a way to help consumers look at pleasure products in a new light, and also drives brand awareness with different target audiences. For example, our partnership with Dave Stewart received coverage in celebrity and music publications that otherwise, would not have covered a vibrator. I think you also learn a lot during a collaboration from the teams you partner with, and it gets the internal team thinking outside the box.”

OhMiBod founder Suki Dunham cited the Brookstone chain as one of the mainstream retailers it has enjoyed a positive relationship with. “Brookstone is a mainstream customer of ours,” Dunham explained. “They are sending out millions of catalogs each year to their broad customer base. It is exciting that our brand is exposed to many different types of people through this vehicle. Even for the Brookstone customers who are not going to purchase vibrators, it sends a message that this product category is legitimate and that our brand is tied to these ‘legitimate’ goods.”

Brian Sofer, digital marketing director for Pipedream Products, pointed to Spencer Gifts as a mainstream retail chain that has been receptive to its products. “Our partnership with Spencer’s is monumental in our mainstream exposure,” Sofer asserted. “The store is in malls all over the country, and having our brand exposed to so much daily foot traffic — as well as on their website — has helped brand recognition and sales. We’ve also had plenty of Hollywood product placements with the likes of FX, Sony Pictures and Netflix.”

Sofer continued, “Sex toys are much more prominent these days. Sales have grown significantly in the last 10 years, and now, the industry boasts over 15 billion dollars a year. It’s definitely due to the exposure of the Internet. People are talking about sex. Taboos are becoming less and less taboo because it’s becoming more and more available to the public.”