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Why porn PR is rarely about the porn

How publicists turn hardcore porn into news-friendly moments

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Over the past few decades, the gap between the adult industry and mainstream culture has grown ever narrower. But you wouldn’t necessarily notice this from porn’s coverage. As popular as the films produced by smut peddlers might be, mainstream news outlets are unlikely to cover the latest edition of Big Booty Moms or Barely Legal; when porn winds up in the media, it’s more as a punchline than the subject of serious reportage or criticism. That is to say, porn isn’t the easiest thing to promote.

Of course, porn public relations isn’t impossible. Brian Gross — who transitioned to porn PR after a few years as a music publicist — notes that, whether he was persuading music reviewers to give an unknown act a listen, or encouraging mainstream media to write up some of the world’s most beloved porn performers, he was doing “the same type of publicity.” Namely it was a very aggressive, very creative sort of strategizing.

Of course, there was still one big difference: while Gross might eventually get reviewers to write up the music performed by one of his more obscure acts, it’d be next to impossible to get a straight review for the work of even the world’s most famous porn star. While music publicity is always, fundamentally, about the music, adult industry publicity is very rarely about the actual porn, a reality that’s helped fuel porn PR’s reputation for stunts targeting the lowest common denominator and press releases hyping their own inherent wackiness, rather than a viable, compelling product.

During the years that I spent writing for porn blog Fleshbot, I became intimately acquainted with this sort of press release, which most commonly took the form of a seven-figure porn contract offered to whatever beleaguered celebrity happened to be in the news. Google “Vivid offers 1 million” and you’ll turn up a plethora of these stunts, as everyone from Nadya “Octomom” Suleman to Pippa Middleton to Ted Cruz has been turned into fodder for the adult industry public relations machine.

These days, sites like Pornhub make splashy announcements about shooting porn in space or plowing streets overrun with snow, only to largely abandon these efforts as soon as the earned media value has run out. For many people — especially beleaguered members of the press exhausted by press releases announcing things like Pornhub-branded lube, Pornhub promoting the cause of pet sterilization awareness, and a service nobody wants that involves texting emoji to receive porn — porn promotion doesn’t do much to challenge the adult industry’s reputation as a seedy business with a primary focus on immediate gratification.

Image: Pornhub

But while these cheap ploys for attention are certainly a part of how the adult industry courts mainstream attention — Adella, founder of FAM, notes that doing stunts “makes [clients] happy and they like it and it’s easy” — it’s inaccurate to reduce the entirety of porn PR to empty press grabs. Mike Stablie, whose clients include Kink.com and xHamster, compares this sort of strategy to a “sugar rush” and notes that “stunt PR fades pretty quickly, and I don’t think that it contributes a lot to the overall conversation around sex and sexuality.”

This, despite the adult industry’s reputation, is actually pretty important to many people working in porn PR. While it’s easy to get quick hits off of outreach that plays up the shocking, taboo nature of sexually explicit media, that doesn’t do much for the long-term health of the industry, which benefits far more from mainstream respect than the “edgy” cred of being part of an aggressively stigmatized industry.

Adella tells me that she always tries to pitch an angle “that isn’t just about porn, or isn’t just about sex, but is about creating a dialogue in our society about the evolution of our sexuality and female empowerment.” In a similar vein, Stabile sees porn publicity as a way to fill in the gaps in our cultural conversation around sex. “Sexuality is not something that is adequately studied,” he tells me, noting that government funding for sex research is virtually nonexistent. “Porn companies are one of the few places that hold this data. What I try to do when I work with a company is to try to figure out what that data tells us, even if it’s imperfect.”

Stabile knows that Kink.com isn’t a research institute, but he still feels that, for instance, the site’s periodic report on the “kinkiest cities in the US” — which combines Kink.com’s own data, information from FetLife’s membership database, and sales data from retailers like Doc Johnson — offers a useful entry point for conversations around nonnormative sexual identities. A recent effort by xHamster, which responded to Utah’s decision to nix comprehensive sex education by redirecting their Utahn xHamster visitors to their sex ed-focused YouTube series, is another example of what Stabile thinks of as “using porn for good.” There’s no denying that press attention is the ultimate goal here (Kink.com isn’t assembling that report just for their own enjoyment), but for many porn PR reps, the potential to encourage much-needed discussions about sex is a significant component.

Gross highlights WoodRocket’s Ask A Porn Star video series, which he compares to Us Weekly’s “Stars – They’re Just Like Us” feature, as another attempt to bring press attention to porn by helping to normalize and demystify sex and the sex industry — and also the people who work within it. For WoodRocket founder Lee Roy Myers, the series taps into people’s curiosity about what he refers to as “the human side of sex.” As the novelty of easy-access to porn has worn off, curiosity about the day-to-day experiences of people who make porn has grown. Myers sees the popularity of Ask A Porn Star as a piece of the rise of “normal” porn performers like Sasha Grey, who stood in contrast to the more outré stars who gained mainstream popularity in the 1990s, like Jenna Jameson, the epitome of the big-breasted blonde archetype, and the hirsute, rotund Ron Jeremy, who represented the other extreme pornstar stockplayer. (Disclosure: I briefly consulted for WoodRocket in 2013 and 2014.)

Which isn’t to say that all of WoodRocket’s press-friendly projects are aimed at highlighting the “normal” side of sex and porn. Since its inception, WoodRocket — which may be the most frequently covered porn site, save for the omnipresent Pornhub — has drawn copious attention for its porn parodies, which run the gamut from almost too obvious (2013’s Game of Bones) to the aggressively weird (SpongeKnob SquareNuts, the viral video that helped launch the site).

Image: Woodrocket

The appeal that these parodies hold is pretty obvious: unlike most porn films, parodies are able to completely crack the mainstream / adult barrier, getting write-ups and reviews in venues that typically focus on non-adult entertainment. Publications peg the story on the safe, mainstream property, while knowingly smirking at the porn side of the equation. Tellingly, Vivid began putting energy into their parody line around the time that celebrity sex tapes began to fall out of favor — both genres allow porn to ride the coattails of the mainstream entertainment industry, albeit approaching mainstream celebrity and popularity from slightly different angles.

But while Myers knows that famous “TV show + porn” is an easy recipe for press attention — “We could get away with bare minimum,” he tells me, noting that even just a photo of a porned-up SpongeBob would probably merit mention somewhere, from someone — he sees full-scale parody projects, which devote a good deal of time and attention into crafting something that’ll appeal to fans of the original property, as more than a ploy for press coverage.

“Until you make a SpongeKnob SquareNuts aimed at getting press attention, you don’t know how much you like making SpongeKnob SquareNuts,” he tells me. It’s the genuine enjoyment he derives from creating XXX parodies that blend the boundaries between sexy and ridiculous that fuels his passion for these projects. Which, he muses to me, may be why his projects get the attention of the press: “It’s not just a scam with us… We just make stuff that we want to make.” And so exists an alternative to traditional porn PR: where press stunts served themselves, now they inspire films that creators like to make and viewers like to watch.

Which ties back to the key point when it comes to getting press attention for a supposedly untouchable subject like porn. As Gross puts it, “If you have a good story to tell, then you have the opportunity for it to be published.” Mainstream media may not be writing straight reviews of most hardcore porn — and, at least in the immediate future, they probably never will — but as long as adult industry publicists are able to find an interesting angle that helps bridge the gap between porn and the general public, they’ll be able to help the uncoverable get covered.

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