Adult Marketing: Steam, Stealth Selling TV Sex

Aug 8, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

When Trans Digital Media launched Playgirl TV last summer, the company enlisted the support of some of its most ardent fans. An online community known as the Playgirl Posse served as a de facto focus group for the company’s new titles and products.

“We realized we had these people who were enthusiastic and e-mailing us every week with ideas and feedback. We thought, why don’t we bring them into the fold and let them help market this product?” said Jonathan Effron, Playgirl’s VP of marketing.

The company rewards loyalty. Posse members might, for example, receive a signed copy of Playgirl magazine’s Man of the Year issue before it hits newsstands. Mr. Effron credits the group in part for helping propel the first adult video entertainment service for women into nearly 8 million households in its first year.

“That person then is more likely to go out and talk to her friends about what we’re doing. It is amazing how far a little good will will go with your most passionate consumers,” Mr. Effron said.

Adult programming is a near-perfect marketing situation for cable and satellite providers. It generates a rich revenue stream, with operators raking in cuts as high as 90 percent of on-demand and pay-per-view sales. And multiple system operators and local cable companies extend almost no promotional support of their own.

“We don’t market adult channels. They market themselves. Usually, word of mouth suffices,” said Mark Harrad, spokesman for Time Warner Cable.

Sales of adult video-on-demand programming alone are expected to rocket to $600 million within five years, according to Kagan Research. That’s nearly three times this year’s estimated $220 million. By comparison, Showtime Event Television estimated that consumers spent $610 million in 2002 for adult entertainment that included-aside from VOD-pay-per-view, subscription and premium revenue. Clearly, consumers are finding the product and buying in droves.

“Adult content is going to be found on digital cable and on-demand or pay-per-view that requires a proactive order on the customer’s part. We want our customers to have choice and we have to balance that against our marketing efforts,” said Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.

The adult space is getting more crowded. Several networks either have launched in the past year or have announced 2005 or 2006 launch dates. The most recent, Heat on Demand, a service of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Deep Star Broadcasting, launched in early July. The company plans to follow with a Spanish-language version, Caliente en Demanda, this month.

“I think we now have all the bases covered as we embark on a journey of satisfying an audience whose thirst for adult entertainment continues to show no end,” Bill Furelle, Deep Star’s senior VP for affiliate sales, said when announcing the new service.

Soft Sell

When cable operators do promote their adult offerings, it is likely to be a low-key affair.

“We have never been big proponents of doing marketing campaigns that involve hot babes and titillating topics. Our greatest challenge is to creatively design marketing campaigns that MSOs feel comfortable embracing,” said Ken Boenish, president of New Frontier Media. The Boulder, Colo.-based company purveys several pay-per-view and on-demand adult channels under the Pleasure and TEN (The Erotic Network) brands.

New Frontier Media networks occasionally partner with cable operators to sponsor events in local markets. Such events may involve an appearance by an adult video star who will promote her presence by doing interviews on morning radio shows targeted toward young male listeners.

In one recent promotion with a Cox system in New Orleans, adult performer Nicole Sheridan coupled a “Make your own bikini” contest with a fund-raiser for victims of last December’s tsunami in South Asia. Another effort featuring Ms. Sheridan was a “Get in bed with Nicole” event at a local nightclub.

“We brought a bed in, and people could crawl in bed with her and have their photograph taken. It was an interesting approach to promoting adult content, and we got a lot of response from it,” said William Mossa, TEN’s VP of affiliate sales and marketing.

Those kinds of events might be considered too off-the-wall in some markets, Mr. Boenish conceded. But they can be effective.

“We can definitely impact the buy rate and the revenue by as much as 25 percent by doing regular and consistent promotions,” he said. “Some affiliates are cautious, and we agree with them on that. We don’t think you have to incorporate overly sexy promotions into every marketing campaign.”

Stealth Marketing

Adult programmers and their cable affiliates sometimes take a more subtle approach to reaching potential customers. TEN and Cable One in Indianapolis combined last year on a direct-mail campaign targeted to customers who had not purchased adult content within the past six months. Those households received a postcard informing them that adult content was available and giving instructions on how to use the system’s parental control features to lock out adult channels. Mr. Mossa said response rates to the mailing ranged as high as 20 percent and that many consumers made an adult purchase as a result of having received the mail piece.

“It is stealth marketing,” he said. “It is mainly a customer advisory about adult control, but on the back it tells you exactly how to order it, gives the channel numbers, the pricing and our logos if you want to make a purchase.”

TEN also provides affiliates with cross-channel branding spots that take a humorous approach to a topic of concern to some consumers. Known as the “Guy Interrupted” series, the campaign focused on a young couple in the throes of passion when the man’s telephone rings. The voice of a woman identifying herself as a clerk from the corner video store erupts from Guy’s answering machine.

“It looks like the following adult titles are late …” the voice says, following with a litany of X-rated-sounding volumes. As Guy’s girl gets up to leave, we learn that had the young man ordered his adult entertainment from the privacy of his home via remote control, none of this would have happened. The campaign won a Gold Award from Promax&BDA for best branding/image campaign.

Banking on the Brand

If brand building is important for cable programmers, it is vital for those in the adult niche. With marketing and promotion backing from local affiliates in short supply, adult purveyors depend on brand strength and name recognition to drive purchases.

Adult programmers such as Playboy TV, Hustler TV and Playgirl TV benefit from association with sibling print publications. Playboy has a premium-level radio product in cooperation with XM Satellite Radio. Playgirl is developing a radio service.

Perhaps no other adult programmer possesses as many multimedia tools as does LFP, parent of Hustler TV. The company cross-promotes its new television service in its magazines and nightclubs, its casino in Los Angeles and Hustler Hollywood retail locations across the country.

On the local level, Hustler offers its cable affiliates a deal in which customers can gain free temporary access to some of the company’s subscription Web sites as a promotional gift.

“Then, if they convert that free usage into a paid membership, the operator benefits from that. It is another form of continuing revenue for them,” said Michael Klein, president of LFP.

But even audacious Hustler, founded by flamboyant publisher Larry Flynt, toes the line when it comes to pushing its products with conservative cable managers.

“You only want to put this content in front of somebody who wants it,” Mr. Klein said. “We find that a lot of customers are aware of it and they know how to get it, whether you promote it or not.”