This spring, I’m mainly working on the #NSFW book with Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light, which is due out in 2018. Both exploring the uses of the tag and considering the intersections of sexuality, social media, labour, risk and safety from multiple perspectives, the book also focuses on the role and position of porn in social media. Below is a brief excerpt addressing Pornhub’s publicity campaigns, with less of the scholarly debates and some of the links included.
Branding porn SFW
In February 2015, Pornhub announced that they were developing a wearable device titled Wankband that lets users charge their smart devices with the kinetic energy generated through the up and down motions of male masturbation:
“Every day, millions of hours of adult content are consumed online, wasting energy in the process and hurting the environment. At Pornhub we decided to do something about it. Introducing the Wankband: The First wearable tech that allows you to love the planet by loving yourself.”
Producing of 100% renewable “guilt-free electricity,” Wankband is part of a longer chain of publicity campaigns through which Pornhub has been profiling its brand and services as fun, user-friendly, socially responsible, and risk-free. The general mode of these PR campaigns might, in British English, be defined as “cheeky,” namely witty bordering on the rude and the irreverent. These campaigns can be divided roughly into three categories: publicity stunts, social and environmental causes contributed to under the rubric “Pornhub Cares,” and “Pornhub Insights” which, similarly to “Google Trends,” consist of statistics and infographics detailing site traffic and user trends.
Pornhub’s publicity stunts have included the 2013 SFW television advert featuring a senior couple sitting on a park bench accompanied by an R&B tune. According to the company, it was intended for Super Bowl but got rejected by CBS, yet this seems highly doubtable on the basis of the advert’s low production values alone. In 2014, Pornhub announced an open SFW advertising contest encapsulating its brand. The crowdsourcing call attracted some 3,000 submissions and the winning entry, along with the shortlisted proposals, were widely covered in online news forums and clickbaits well beyond platforms considered pornographic. The winning ad poster, designed by the Turkish copywriter, Nuri Gulver, and titled “All You Need is Hand,” was briefly erected on the iconic location of Times Square to the backing vocals of Gotham Rock Choir’s rendition of the Beatles classic, All You Need is Love. The same year also involved a contest for Pornhub theme song and the offer of free premium memberships on Valentine’s Day.
In 2015, the company announced its plans for shooting the first pornographic film in space, provided it would be able to collect the necessary $3.4 million budget through crowdfunding: these plans were report in The Huffington Post, The Express, Times of India, The Mirror, and on CBNC, among other mainstream news outlets. News of these stunts, some of which are more fake than others, travel quickly in social media by virtue of their easy combination of humor, pornography, and user engagement. The stunts invite users as participants not only in porn consumption and masturbation but equally in Pornhub brand building and the funding of its productions.
Pornhub’s social causes and charitable campaigns have ranged from the “Save the Boobs” campaigns collecting money for breast cancer research on the basis of the videos viewed in its “big tit” and “small tit” categories to the 2014 campaign, “Pornhub Gives America Wood,” which involved planting trees for every 100 videos watched in its “Big Dick” category, and the 2015 “Save the Balls” testicular cancer awareness campaign. In 2015, the company gave out its first $25,000 scholarship for academic studies on the basis of the candidates’ videos detailing how they strive to make others happy. The following year, the scholarship was given for women studying science, technology, engineering, or math, with the aim of advancing women’s careers in the tech industry. In addition, Pornhub has joined in a campaign for saving sperm whales and, together with porn star and intimate partner violence victim Christy Mack, has set out to fight domestic violence.
Information on these campaigns, with their more or less tangential connections with pornography, travels through news hubs, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. The stunts also circulate in these forms but fundamentally revolve around the relation between Pornhub and its users and serves in the construction, management, and maintenance of a brand community. The social causes, on the other hand, are additionally focused on constructing Pornhub as a socially responsible—and in this sense, respectable—corporate brand that contributes to making the world a better place, even if the sums involved in its charitable campaigns are on the modest side.
In Feburary 2017, Pornhub launched their “Sexual Wellness Center,” a sex education site with information on reproductive health, STDs, and relationships. The role of pornography as a form of sex education has long been a topic of debate among educators, journalists, academics, and concerned adults: in most instances, porn is firmly seen as bad in its pedagogical output and the false, exaggerated, and generic sexual scenarios that it reiterates. By inserting the professional angle of sex education into their palette of free service, Pornhub aims to further bolster its image of public responsibility. At the same time, news of the sex education site’s launch gained the company ample free—and largely positive—publicity across the platforms of social media.
Probably the most successful form of the company’s PR campaigns nevertheless involves “Pornhub Insights,” its widely circulated and diverse user statistics and infographics, most notably those published in its annual “Year in Review.” From these data, news media pick up on the sheer volume of traffic on just this site: in 2016, there were a reported 23 billion visits resulting in 4,6 billion hours spent watching 92 billion videos. The annual reviews summarize web site traffic, search behaviors and trends, use patterns, devices used, and breaks down this data according to search terms and lengths of visits in different countries. In its stickiness, such data is understandably attractive to international online news sites and blogs wishing to catch the fleeting attention of users and its already digested, easily understandable forms further fuel its spreadability. Given the general, and notorious, shortage of any reliable data on the patterns of online porn consumption, Pornhub statistics are, despite their specificities, shared and referenced broadly as evidence of porn trends on a global scale.
The width and depth of the user data analyzed and visualized in the Pornhub’s annual review and their multiple monthly thematic reports makes evident—and in fact notably graphic—the flows of user data that are automatically generated and stored when accessing video aggregator sites or virtually any other website. Sites collect data on the devices and operating systems used, clicks, searches, comments, and connections made, archive, mine, and analyze this data for the purposes of targeted advertising. Pornhub’s manner of re-circulating and feeding back this data to consumers may be exceptional in its degree of detail, yet, there is nothing exceptional in their access to, or uses of the data as such.
Cutting through Pornhub’s PR efforts is the aim of overcoming the boundary between things deemed suitable for mainstream social media platforms, and those not. The campaigns afford Pornhub broad, positive international publicity in news sites and social media platforms for virtually no expense. Facebook, for example, allows sharing of news items on Pornhub but no links to the site itself. It would be highly unlikely for most news sites covering their PR stunts to accept the company’s advertisements should these ever be proposed but they cover the company’s stunts and projects with glee in search for clicks, reactions, and shares that function as indicators of attention. Pornhub’s PR stunts are, in sum, perfectly attuned to the click economy of social media: they feed clickbaits that again feed (and feed on) Facebook traffic in particular. This translates as added value to all parties involved.
By publishing the volume and trends of porn use on the site, Pornhub also makes claim for these practices being ubiquitous enough to form a quintessential part of the mundane rhythms and flows of media use across national boundaries during both working hours and leisure. This is a firm gesture of mainstreaming, of moving porn consumption from the so-called “dark” or marginal side of Internet use towards its central traffic and reframing it as a fun, recreational activity. Pornography has been part and parcel of the mainstream Web since its very early days, considering its perennial popularity among users and its centrality in terms of online economies, but has nevertheless retained a conceptual status as a marginal and somehow illegitimate of the medium. In this sense, Pornhub’s campaigns can be seen as contributing to a reframing of porn use by rendering explicit its mainstream and thus socially safe status. In a 2014 Adweek interview, Pornhub Vice President, Corey Price, explained that
“We want to push the conversation into the general public as something that’s acceptable to talk about, while letting people know that watching porn shouldn’t be an underground activity that’s to be seen as shameful. Everyone does it, why not just bring that out in the open? The reason it causes a stir is due to an already accepted set of social norms.”
The overall aim of the PR campaigns is to build up Pornhub as an entertainment brand among others. This again implies a process of domestication whereby media contents deemed unsavory, inappropriate, and off the mainstream are rendered familiar, acceptable, routine, and ordinary. Such processes have during the past decade or so, been diagnosed through concepts such as the sexualization and pornification of culture with the aim of accounting for how pornography has grown mundane in its accessibility, how people of different ages and genders are routinely consuming it, and the role that the flirtation with both the sexually suggestive and the sexually explicit plays media culture. Such diagnoses describe the mainstreaming of pornography in terms of its sheer popularity (bearing in mind the annual volume of Pornhub traffic alone), as well as the general visibility of pornographic codes, aesthetics, and themes across different fields of culture. As a long-standing media cultural trend, flirtation with pornography is telling of the perpetual—albeit also regularly uncomfortable—public presence of materials deemed obscene, the simultaneous fascination and aversion that they entail, as well as the constant labor involved in maintaining some kind of a boundary between pornography and the mainstream, the NSFW and SFW.
The mainstreaming and domestication of Pornhub through its SFW public relations campaigns interferes with the scent of forbidden fruit on which the cultural status, and central attraction, of pornography has been dependent throughout its history and which has rendered it the content that necessitates specific policing, censorship, and acts of regulation. Their PR campaigns increase the brand’s visibility in a range of SFW within the online attention economy of clicks, links, and shares, but similar cross-platform circulation cannot apply to the NSFW videos that the site hosts.