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The perils of being edgy

21 Nov 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
The perils of being edgy

The backlash against Unilever and Heinz for advertising on Pornhub shows how the risks associated with ad placement are becoming as high as the messages they carry. By Jan Gooding

A few weeks ago, I glanced at the front page of the Sunday Times and groaned with empathy with the folk at the Unilever and Heinz head office.

There was the headline anyone responsible for corporate reputation would dread: ‘Unilever and Heinz pay for ads on porn site that hosts child sex abuse’.

The article went on to reveal that Kraft Heinz had taken over the website’s homepage for a one day with their #FoodPorn campaign promoting its frozen food brand Devour. Unilever had also run an advertising campaign on Pornhub for its male grooming company Dollar Shave Club.

Brands can bring respectability to publishers

The essence of the story was that Pornhub was not sufficiently monitoring its user generated content, and as a consequence disturbing material containing child abuse was finding its way onto the website and achieving significant viewing figures.

The named advertisers were accused of giving Pornhub the ‘sheen of respectability’ by promoting their brands on it and therefore positioning it as a family friendly site.

It was actually ‘old news’

All the ingredients for an unwelcome spotlight to put it mildly. And I felt for the marketing teams because on closer inspection, although the article ran in November, the offending campaigns had run in January and May.

So basically, Unilever and Heinz had been singled out for shaming six months after their ads appeared. They were the household names needed to fuel the story.

I don’t think anyone at this point would want to defend Pornhub particularly, or express anything other than dismay at the horrendous findings in the article. If true, the material highlighted in the story is illegal and puts children in danger.

That part of it is a matter for the police and Pornhub to investigate and address.

Should there be compensation?

However, the story does raise legitimate questions for advertisers to consider on a number of counts. Firstly, what is the expectation of brand owners with regard to the governance of content on the websites on which they advertise?

There is an important principle to be upheld whereby advertisers buy access to the media audience and do not seek to influence the publishing and editorial integrity of the medium it is using. However, I would imagine Unilever and Kraft Heinz took a bigger reputational hit than Pornhub as a result of this article.

What compensation, if any, will they be demanding as a result of this negative association with an illegal and highly distasteful activity? What due diligence is done in advance by media agencies with regard to the governance of user generated content to evaluate the risks?

Should agencies be on the hook for giving the advice to appear in the first place? All uncomfortable lines of enquiry, but questions that certainly spring to mind.

Do we think enough about the frame of mind of the audiences?

Secondly, as brands chase the ‘audience’ in online campaigns, is enough attention being paid to the appropriateness of the environment and context? I must confess that I can see the logic of a male grooming brand appearing on an adult porn site more easily than frozen food.

Yes, of course I get that it was the campaign idea #foodporn that led them there. But really? In considering the frame of mind of people visiting such a site in that moment, did the marketing team seriously imagine it was a good moment to push Devour’s frozen macaroni and cheese?

The Devour campaign centers around a man’s addiction to so called ‘frozen food porn’. I enjoyed its cheeky innuendo, whereby this particular person’s obsession turned him into a ‘three-minute man’. And I appreciate that the end line ‘Don’t just eat. Devour’ is a nice bit of branding. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it is a campaign that has worked well in traditional media channels.

After all, the addictiveness and sensuality of favourite foods is certainly rich territory to exploit. But perhaps it works better in the creative execution than the media schedule?

What were the motivations behind this placement?

I suspect the appearance of Pornhub on the media schedule had much more to do with wanting the brand to come across as ‘edgy’ than either its link with the creative idea or efficiently reaching its lusty male target audience.

If Pornhub gained a veneer of respectability by association with mainstream brands, perhaps Devour was hoping Pornhub would shed a little of their lack of it onto them in return? If you know people find your brand boring it can be true that turning up where you are not expected provokes a reappraisal.

Advertisers are not necessarily welcome

The trouble in this case is that I suspect most advertisers are not very welcome on Pornhub. I imagine that unless products are a natural part of the scene, as with all types of media content, ads can be a pretty annoying distraction. I am sure a brand of men’s underwear would fit in, but I doubt a turkey and bacon sandwich does as effortlessly.

Earlier this year, an article in the Daily Telegraph caught my eye. It contained the news that French scientists had found that men automatically fall asleep after having sex. They found that the cerebral cortex, which governs conscious thought, switched off during orgasm.

So far from getting in the mood to eat, men are actually programmed to have a nap. Choosing viewing porn as the optimal moment to sell anything may be counterproductive.

Should we care about equivalent production values?

The creative director of ‘Dollar Shave Club’ said advertising on Pornhub is not expensive and the impressions are huge. I remain sceptical about its true value.

The Dollar Shave Club is a brand that in the words of its founder Michael Dubin, ‘aims to take over the bathroom and make it easy for guys to look, smell and feel fantastic’. No doubt the hope of many of their customers is that achieving this does indeed lead to success in the bedroom.

But this media placement lacks subtlety to put it mildly.

As part of researching this article I visited Pornhub - which I must admit was not previously part of my viewing habits. It was no surprise to experience the crude and low production values typically associated with the genre.

Similarly, I have looked at the Dollar Shave Club advertising campaigns, and appreciated their high production values, humour and affectionate celebration of men and all their foibles. The contrast in all round production quality seems an uncomfortable fit for the brand to me.

When it goes wrong, the corporate brand is vulnerable

And finally, whilst individual brands may pursue a deliberately edgy strategy with their media schedule, it is the corporate brand that takes the hit when things go wrong.

It is often the case that brands that have attention seeking creative work, or media schedules, are not well known and are trying to make their budgets stretch. That is at least part of the motivation for thinking laterally and trying to either achieve invaluable editorial coverage or word of mouth. Fair enough. Until it goes wrong, and then it is the corporate brand that finds themselves in the headline.

I suspect that most head office marketing people tend to monitor the creative work from their brand stable more closely than the media schedule. This incident would make me think about how as much care can be taken over media choice. It is obvious that the risks associated with where ads are placed are becoming as high as the messages they carry.

No doubt Heinz and Unilever will be putting protocols in place to avoid once again spitting out their mouthful of muesli on a Sunday morning when they read the headlines.


Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.

@Jan_Gooding

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NigelJacklin, MD, Think Media Consultancy on 22 Nov 2019
“I understand that for some people shaving (their private parts) is an important part of their sexual appearance...so the shaving ads seem like a good idea. In Brighton you'll see ads on phone boxes for the Bollocks Barber.”

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09 Dec 2019 

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