The Porno-ization of American Media and Marketing

How Hard-Core Sex Stars are Penetrating Mainstream Culture

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Ron Jeremy, the legendary star of some 1,700 hard-core porn films over the last two decades, steeps in the hot tub of a sweeping hilltop Los Angeles mansion, glass of merlot in hand, flanked by a dozen gorgeous babes in tiny bikinis. It's a full-on party atmosphere where giggles fill the air and eyes constantly roam. It's ripe with possibility.

Declaring the ascendence of porn is a 48-foot-high billboard of porn queen Jenna Jameson in Time Square, the symbolic heart of the U.S. advertising industry. She is now courted by TV producers, book publishers and marketers as a cultural star.

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Prime-time porn
It might sound like the setup for Mr. Jeremy's latest adult entertainment vehicle, available on pay-per-view or a video store near you, but it isn't. It's The Surreal Life, an unscripted show airing on The WB, one of the first network broadcasters to hire a porn star as a major player in a prime-time show.

Also starring in the series, a fly-on-the-wall look at six has-been celebs and pop cult figures bunking in a house together, are televangelist Tammy Faye Messner, former Baywatch babe Traci Bingham, Latin hunk Erik Estrada, Rob Van Winkle (a k a Vanilla Ice, the former white rapper), and Real World alum Trishelle Canatella.

For Jeremy, his inclusion in the series is a stroke of casting brilliance and a chance for him to be seen by the broadest possible audience outside his adult entertainment roots and beyond the relative success he's had in mainstream movies and music videos. "No doubt there's a shock value to it," he said. "What's the biggest contrast you can get to a Bible-carrying evangelist? A porn star."

The Jan. 11 premier featuring Jeremy drew 5.3 million viewers, making it the highest-rated show ever in that time period in The WB's 10-year history.

'Porno-ized' America
He's the latest, but by no means only porn star to grab attention in the mainstream media. He is part of what some trend mavens say is the new "porno-ized" America, which seems to be enthralled with people who were once marginalized in a business that has always been the black sheep of entertainment.

"It's a way to prove your liberalness to not be freaked out by porn," said Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide. "People are decidedly more open now."

Signs to that effect are everywhere. Jenna Jameson, a Vivid Video veteran and budding franchise, looms large over Times Square in a 48-foot-high billboard. She has an autobiography, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, set for a spring release. She's hosted television shows on E!, where she's been the subject of a highly rated E! True Hollywood Story, been featured on Entertainment Tonight and in magazine stories too numerous to count. Her fellow Vivid cohorts also have book deals and an unscripted TV show from Emmy-winning production company World of Wonder hitting the air in Britain soon. The U.S. will follow.

A documentary on Deep Throat, the groundbreaking Linda Lovelace movie of the '70s, is in the works, with Hollywood heavyweight Brian Grazer producing. Mary Carey, a Vivid star, ran for governor of California during the recall election of fall 2003 that put action movie maven Arnold Schwarzenegger in office. Though it didn't succeed, a prime-time drama called Skin hit Fox's schedule this season with a porn king as one of the main characters.

HBO's 'Pornucopia'
HBO is planning a six-part documentary on the adult entertainment industry called Pornucopia: Going Down in the Valley, and rival pay network Showtime starts the second season of its porn-centric series, Family Business with star character

Photo: AP
Porn star Mary Carey became a media star with her run for governor in last year's California recall race. Here, she presents the issues in front of the Sacramento State House.
Seymore Butts. There's a nod to porn chic in the makeup, styling and fashion of such pop stars as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, not to mention Paris Hilton's X-rated videotaped romp.

Marketers are beginning to take notice, though even porn pioneer and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt says there are barriers for brand endorsements. "I'm sure General Motors wouldn't have a porn star trying to sell their cars like Dinah Shore did years ago," Mr. Flynt said. "The culture has changed, but the product has to be right."

Though the figures are difficult to verify, adult entertainment could be pulling in anywhere from $8 billion to $11 billion a year, which, at the high end, would make it bigger than Hollywood's feature film business. Trade magazine Adult Video News reported that sales and rentals of adult videos alone racked up $4 billion last year.

'Elevated status'?
"There's a kinky allure, a strange glamorous association with that world," said Judith Regan, whose Harper Collins Regan Books division is publishing Ms. Jameson's book and other Vivid tomes. "It's considered tawdry, but it's still titillating. It's been elevated in terms of its status."

There are a number of reasons for the proliferation of porn and its practitioners in mainstream media, with technology and competition perhaps leading the pack. When porn went from a sex-shop-only phenomenon to being available at the corner video store, on pay-per-view and on the Internet, it became accessible,

Photo: AP
Hard-core sex performer Ron Jeremy is now prime-time fare on the WB and has a book in the works for HarperCollins.
anonymous and, perhaps, palatable to more consumers than ever. Even mid-range hotels in Middle America have porn piped in on pay-per-view, with huge revenues coming from it.

"The face of the consumer has changed," said Rhett Speros, a trend analyst at brand consulting firm Buzztone, New York. "It's no longer that old guy in the trench coat in the '60s that your parents told you to run from."

TV and movie marketers
The competitive edge could be pushing TV, movies and marketers to entrench themselves more deeply in the still-often seedy world. TV networks must try much harder to lure audiences in the 500-plus channel universe, where other entertainment options such as DVDs, the Internet, video games and feature films abound.

"There's still enough of a taboo left that it's rascally and funny," said Bob Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "TV is dropping its pants and saying a naughty word to get attention."

Despite their propensity to include porn stars on casts or in featured segments, TV executives were surprisingly mum on those decisions. Requests for comments from a range of network and cable channels were turned down, across the board.

The marketing community, to a lesser degree than mainstream media, has started inching toward a pornographic embrace. Trend guru Faith Popcorn, who founded Brain Reserve marketing consulting firm, recently said porn is the norm, consumers are desensitized and advertisers will have to continue to push the envelope to get their messages through.

Music and porn
Old-school sneaker brand Pony used Ms. Jameson prominently, along with other Vivid Girls, in its ad campaign last year. The brand, at the time, was owned by Hollywood talent management company The Firm, whose vice president of global marketing, Come Chantrel, shepherded the campaign. Among its roster are a number of popular rock bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit, whose members are linked romantically with porn stars.

"Porn is where hip-hop was 10-15 years ago," Mr. Chantrel said. "It's very rock and roll. There's a rebellious, edgy attitude to it."

Howard Stern and a now-50-year-old Playboy used to have that attitude, but are now considered tame and domesticated. Porn may be the final Wild West frontier, Mr. Chantrel said, which can be harnessed by some brands but not others. For Pony, which counts men 18 to 25 among its best customers, it was organic.

"The most important thing is credibility," Mr. Chantrel said. "If you understand what's appealing about that world, the subtleties of that culture, then you can use it. If you don't, you'll look ridiculous."

Pushing the limits
Hip-hop's ability to sell is well-documented, with stars such as 50 Cent hawking customized Reeboks, Missy Elliott doing Gap commercials and Snoop Dogg rapping for Nokia. Richards Group's creative director, Chuck Schiller, was instrumental in hooking up Snoop and his wireless client. He says marketers' penchant for testing their ads and gathering information from their consumers dictates how far they will go in pushing limits.

"There will always be brands that tie themselves to unassailable highest-good values, and they'll never do anything outside that no matter how hip it is," Mr. Schiller said. "Others will take calculated risks. And when they step over the line, they'll get slapped down."

Fashion and alcohol marketers
Fashion, alcohol and cosmetics can trade on an edgy tone, and those industries are the most likely to be first in incorporating porn stars and sensibilities into their marketing. For other brands, it's a matter of who wants to jump off the diving board first.

"Most clients say, 'This is not the time to be an innovator,' " Buzztone's Mr. Speros said. "They would rather intrigue than shock."

Ms. Salzman said that for all their acceptance, porn stars still have baggage that makes them less attractive to recommend as brand ambassadors.

"I'm looking for a clean slate because I want the brand personality to shine through," Ms. Salzman said. "But if you really want to break the rules and push a brand, a porn star might not be the worst way to go."

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