Revolutionary times happen in every industry as technocultural change keeps on keeping on. Everyone knows that the Internet has seriously deflated the traditional adult entertainment industry. Adult entertainment once upon a time made major profits printing airbrushed pictures of beehived babes on dead trees. Along came videocassettes, along came cable, and then boom, along came the Internet as a major challenge. How those brands have adapted and not adapted to the changes wrought by technoculture might provide some food for thought for all media companies facing major challenges from rapid technological change among their consumer bases (and that’s just about everyone in the media).
A few years ago, I did an interview with BusinessWeek magazine about the Playboy brand (see the article here). I said that the brand and the bunny icon had some residual appeal, however, a kind of kinder and gentler sexuality that had some kitsch appeal. I thought at the time that a positioning around playful sexuality made sense for Playboy, and indeed, with the Hefner name attached to Playboy, it seems like they can’t move too far from their emotional roots. Playboy is like Adult Disney, it isn’t particularly threatening, dangerous, or perverse. Once it moves into Hustler’s terrain, the brand is, um, screwed.
That’s where the marketing insights of Christie Hefner really seemed to shine. Playboy followed the lead into all forms of New Media–they’ve had to. Although Playboy is the mainstream brand, Playboy Enterprises has built its Spice brands into a hardcore heavyweight. Catering to divergent needs with different brands, Playboy is able to maintain a mainstream corporate brand that offers porn to the masses (and the masses are loving, it by the way, as this recent popular machinima YouTube video attests). And with Spice, they also have a complete range of offerings to satisfy many adult tastes. Diverse tastes, legitimacy concern, multiple brands. I called it “decoupling” in the BusinessWeek article, and Christie Hefner called it the use of a flanker brand. Whatever you call it, it made good sense to me.
The results seem to bear out that this strategy makes sense. I see the Playboy brand around, adorning women’s jewelry and clothing, more than ever. Although we don’t often acknowledge it, sexual repression is alive and well in our contemporary society, and it inspires resistance. Clearly the brand’s meanings of an open, guiltless, approach to sexual pleasure have resonance with young and old.
Penthouse’s brand hasn’t been doing nearly as well. Entering Hustler’s space, Penthouse went hardcore and its sales suffered. Channels closed up, and in 2003 its publisher filed for bankruptcy. As Abram Sauer writes in an interesting online posting about the brand for brandchannel.com, Penthouse has been restructured and re-launched into the same mainstream segment that Playboy occupies. Like Playboy, Penthouse now features only tasteful full nudity and now has at least 11 international editions and a circulation around 350,000. There is little doubt that this brand is struggling, and Sauer opines that Penthouse needs to find its proper customer segment. Which group of people, which set of needs, is the brand going to appeal to?
But I think my initial observations paid far too little attention to the revolutionary changes that technoculture–the combined impacts of technology and culture–has brought. How do adult entertainment brands find and create meaning today in such a rapidly changing, high-demand, instant access, everything available, porn, porn, everywhere world? Consider first some alternatives, like the Suicide Girls, Burning Angel and SuperCult web-sites that spotlight a different type of young woman, exposing a grittier and more realistic, more 3-dimensional view. As you can see in the quick posterview comparison in the graphics above, sites like these seem to cater not only to a different target but to a different aesthetic thank Playboy and Penthouse, and I think that’s important (BTW, I don’t mean to ignore or bypass the many important and worthwhile alternatives to mainstreamy straight porn in this blog, I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with everything in a focused way this time).
But I think what is going on simultaneously is something even more fundamental than a particular target’s needs not being served. What if parts of the porn industry are shifting, just like parts of so many industries are shifting, into a more communal and do-it-yourself (DIY) model. What if increasing numbers of people don’t have the same taste for professional porn that they once did, and prefer the amateur variety?
What if the porn industry is becoming wikimediated the same way that Star Trek and other media properties are, the same what that YouTube is democratizing the media, and blogs are engaging the news? What if a rising tide of people (yes, people, male, female, and every possible combination) is actually *enjoying* the combination of voyeurism and exhibitionism that they can only get by DIYing their porn?
There are many business models out there for monetizing this trend and its activity. Go check out RedClouds, WhatBoysWant and YuVuTu web-sites, for instance, to see adult entertainment brands that brand themselves around user-generated content. And there is an awful lot of room for free content out there. People seem much happier consuming their porn rapidly on screens rather than slowly on dead trees. What works and what doesn’t in the adult entertainment industry is going to be an interesting lesson that is going to help us understand the nature, appeal, trends, and business models of user-generated content across many other new and old media industries.