Inside Pornhub's Crusade to Tear Down the Taboos of Watching Sex Online

Can an adult site become a mainstream brand?

Pornhub product placement can be found in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon, which also advertised on the site.

Even if you aren't one of Pornhub's 50 million daily visitors, you've probably heard the site's name this year in a surprisingly safe-for-work context.

Maybe you read about its non-pornographic ad design contest, Times Square billboard, Arbor Day tree planting initiative or any of the other mainstream, unsleazy marketing pushes that the brand (and it most certainly is a brand) has used to expose itself to a wider audience.

"As our data shows, people all over the world watch porn—so why be ashamed of it?" said Corey Price, vp of Pornhub. "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." 

In terms of the site's broadening appeal and cultural relevance, the Pornhub team sees their site as "just another brand," according to Price. But because it's a site closely tied to the adult industry and all the stigmas that come with it, Pornhub has to be creative and mindful in how it positions itself.

"I don't think any other adult site has taken the steps that we've taken as far as exposure and openness," said Price. "I think that in itself separates us from most brands right off the bat." 

You can see that transparency in the Pornhub team's honest and informative Reddit AMA, its brilliant data analysis of how the Super Bowl affects porn viewership, its map of which countries "finish fastest," or its rapid-fire response to a news station that accidentally tweeted a Pornhub link.

In other words, Pornhub is doing modern branding as well as or better than the biggest brands out there. 

They've even got cross-promotional deals and Hollywood product placements. The company struck a deal with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt to feature a few of its 3.5 million video clips in his porn-filled romantic comedy Don Jon. That's part of the reason Don Jon—as well as another Joseph Gordon Levitt vehicle, Sin City 2—was one of the recent mainstream advertisers that the brand has attracted to the site. Adult-themed movies haven't been the only ones interested in using the brand's platform; California-based food delivery service Eat24 made headlines advertising on the site. 

"Yes, it's still taboo [to advertise on X-rated sites like Pornhub], but we've had several clients take advantage of our huge user base and competitive ad rates and see a huge gain from it," Price said. "The overall mission of advertising is to get eyes on a product; we offer the ability to expose any brand to 50 million visitors." 

But a socially savvy marketing approach can only go so far. Much of the content featured on Pornhub, as on most adult sites, is overwhelmingly focused on male viewers, and sexual objectification of women is a frequent theme. Is Pornhub actually a different kind of porn site, or is it just the usual porn site but with a new style of packaging?

When asked about this issue, Pornhub points to its adoption of an amateur-uploaded content platform and a section of content aimed specifically at women, though many competing sites offer the same.

Ultimately the brand is a platform that, according to Price, offers many different types of content to appeal to many different types of users. "We make due with the tools we have to make sure we don't discount any one group, gender or set of preferences," Price said. 

"Anything that takes most forms of sexual expression away from being perceived as dirty, or things like that, is something I support," said Jennifer Baumgardner, activist and executive director of the Feminist Press.

But while it's promising to see a brand that wants to "create more space for us to not feel ashamed about sexuality and sexual expressions," Baumgardner said, it's not yet clear whether a site like Pornhub can move the adult industry forward without retaining "all that's wrong with the way we're currently doing things."

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