All About Content
It is no accident that our attention as marketers and the attention of obscenity law enforcers converge on the same points. It's an ironic cultural hypocrisy that we insist on criminalizing the healthy gratification of natural human impulses.
The question of our right to legally access adult material has been contested in the courts since the earliest days of our industry, and will certainly be contested again.
But rather than keep all our eggs in the historically porous First Amendment basket, I am more interested in the ways it is possible to circumvent traditional obscenity tests.
I'm talking about alternative content types, both erotic and otherwise that can be packaged for consumption in clever ways that deflect or (better yet) do not arouse the usual moral and legal condemnation.
What are those immune content types, and how do we both monetize them directly and use them to protect our traditional high-yielding content?
Evolution is the result of the interaction between organisms and their environment.
The suppression of sexual content in America has been a consistent environmental factor long enough for evolutionary responses to be in evidence. If anyone knows that demand has not been suppressed, we surely do.
Although we have failed to respond and evolve our own products, others have, and we should closely scrutinize their examples. Television, both broadcast and cable, has many.
Reality TV troubles me greatly, but I can't help but admire what they are doing from a business standpoint and look for ways to apply those lessons online. By "reality" I don't just mean unscripted scenarios using "nonactors" — we have plenty of that in our own adult reality and gonzo niches.
What message does it convey about us as a culture that we are prepared to condone what is essentially psychic prostitution of the most unusual and depraved forms, but can't suffer the appearance of a single nipple at the Super Bowl?
The fetishistic and quasisexual nature of these shows cannot be ignored either. The "contestants" are usually chosen for their physical attractiveness (unless it is the object of the program to torture someone who is overweight or plain).
They are often in scanty attire and the acts they are made to perform (the ingestion of living insects, immersion in vats of human feces, etc.) are thinly veiled BDSM of an extreme order.
We should take advantage of what has been discovered on television and become pioneers in the creation of a spectrum of content types that will bridge hardcore to the mainstream in fine increments.
If we do this, we'll be able to blur the borders around "sex" content, increase our traffic and revenues with new sites that draw clicks in their own right, which are attractive to mainstream advertisers and can be used to filter and feed adult traffic inward, toward the higher-converting, more explicitly sexual stuff.
What if Google and Overture turned off the spigots tomorrow? What if the major ISPs blocked access to our domains and emails? What if publisher sites could face the same consequences if they accepted our ads?
I think we are operating under the presumption that the end of our access to mainstream traffic sources will require a drawnout legal battle, a lengthy judicial deliberation and a period of appeal.
Events a year ago should have taught us the error of that presumption. Just weeks after the exposure of Janet Jackson's nipple, well before the FCC had decided its $550,000 punishment of CBS/Viacom, shock waves of a distinctly censorial nature were sweeping through the programming departments of all the major broadcast and cable TV companies.
No one at the Federal Communications Commission had told anyone what to air and what not to air, yet programs of all sorts were pulled from the schedules, including "Saving Private Ryan." When asked about the acceptability of particular programs, the FCC declined to comment, saying that to do so would be tantamount to censorship.
The effect of censorship can be achieved without legal process and without even the articulation of policy. A climate that includes merely the possibility of political and economic reprisals, a climate of fear, is all that is needed to achieve censorship.
Now, I ask you, if multibillion dollar U.S.-based, publicly traded companies were similarly squeezed, do you think they would stand up for us?
When moneymaking programs are voluntarily pulled from the air, when even advertisers are so skittish that they pull their ads from shows they feel could come under condemnation, it's obvious that sound business logic has gone out the window, and all the hundreds of millions of top-line revenue dollars we contribute to the likes of Google and Overture won't buy us safety.
Here again, the answer is that we must take matters into our own hands. We must create different kinds of sites that pass the test of obscenity, which can be advertised on mainstream traffic sources and turn up in nonadult-tagged search results.
We must take greater vertical control of our distribution channels to serve as bridges and ferries to our Island of Adult. We must not hesitate to pursue these opportunities wherever they lead, though it may sadden us as enlightened, open minded people to consider what they suggest about our culture.
Make no mistake, if we do not, others certainly will, and then we will find ourselves beholden to them, and no less isolated than we are today.
Jack Mardack is general manager of the FriendFinder Network. He is responsible for traffic acquisition for the company's 17 personals sites, and marketing and conversion optimization strategies.