Bad Vibrations

In his monthly column, Brian Gray from Glasgow-based erotic marketing agency Lascivious Marketing offers his thoughts on all things marketing. This month he’s assessing the breakup of the Ann Summers and Pornhub relationship. What went wrong, and what are the key points arising from it?

In early March the British digital newspaper The Independent featured a brief interview with Jacqueline Gold, CEO of British adult retail institution Ann Summers. Discussion topics focused on women in business as well as the wider apparel industry. The article also fleetingly mentioned the collaboration with porn website Pornhub which received widespread industry coverage over the past few months.

But only two days later, the press reported the demise of the Pornhub tie-up. An Ann Summers spokesperson stated “We did not feel our brand could sit alongside the content that appeared on the site.”


So what happened? While we won’t know exactly what occurred in Ann Summers’ HQ we do know with certainty that an online petition launched in February called for the company to dump Pornhub. This was compounded by organised protests outside Ann Summers stores and media coverage in the likes of New Statesman magazine. As an aside, in hindsight it’s surprising that Gold didn’t get grilled about all this in her newspaper interview.

While this episode is not going to bring about the imminent demise of Ann Summers, it’s nonetheless costly and embarrassing. This wasn’t some quick-win PR story to gain column inches: it was a full blown product tie-up. There was trade show exposure, distribution arrangements, marketing collateral, the whole nine yards.

But I’d argue that not only is the fallout something their PR team could have done without, it also suggests to me a clear lack of marketing and PR nous at the earliest stages of this ill-fated collaboration.

The huge elephant in the room to be called out is the apparent lack of anyone in Ann Summers doing any sort of marketing due diligence at the outset when assessing the suitability of Pornhub as a partner. Or if someone did, it appears they were outvoted on the matter.

The Ann Summers website proclaims that “Our brand is built on a solid foundation of strong women, strong morals and girl power.” In direct contrast, a not exhaustive look at the Pornhub website should have given any savvy PR or marketing manager a reason to raise their hand at the initial project meeting and question just how closely the two brands – and their respective wares – were aligned, and how their existing customer base would perceive it. It really does beggar belief that this didn’t occur, or that it did and was over-ruled or dismissed.

To be clear, for good or bad, Pornhub is what it is. And I’d wager their considerable viewer base is not unduly concerned at this tie-up collaboration prematurely ending. The same cannot be said for Ann Summers however, who potentially have much more to lose.

Furthermore, the problem is not that Ann Summers chose to get into bed (I might as well keep the euphemisms relevant) with a porn company per se. Myriad statistics (including from Pornhub themselves as well as Ann Summers’ own ‘Great British Pleasure Survey’) clearly indicate women watch porn. That’s beyond debate.

I know female lingerie and latex designers who have no problem selecting porn performers to model their creations. Look also at the sex toy manufacturer Lelo partnering with sex party organisers Killing Kittens. There’s enough media reporting of their parties to know what occurs at those events, yet there’s an upmarket sex toy brand happy to be associated with them. Wicked smiles abound, it appears.

The issue, at least from a marketing perspective, is their choice of bedfellow, who the protestors and petitioners had a serious grudge against. And by getting into bed with Pornhub, Ann Summers unwittingly gifted anti-porn protesters the perfect ‘vehicle’ to hijack to help in their own wider campaign.

So how should Ann Summers react to this? Firstly, by not bothering trying to placate the hard-core protesters and campaigners. They may be making the most noise, but they’re a minority and probably unlikely to be buying anything from the retail chain anyway. Of far more importance are the much bigger segment of customers who really identify with the Ann Summers brand and perhaps watch porn too. How many – if any – of these women are offended by the Pornhub tie-up? What are their intentions now? Are they going to carry on shopping or consciously look for alternative retailers? Obviously this sort of insight isn’t going to magically materialise onto somebody’s desk. It will require sales and social media monitoring, and primary quantitative research to ascertain the mood in the camp and conduct lost sales analysis.

The irony of all this is that had Ann Summers been wiser and put a bit more effort into things from the outset, they could well have succeeded with a porn collaboration. There are female porn producers – some even regarding themselves as feminist adult filmmakers – who surely could have been a more suitable choice, perhaps using a brand new female and couples-friendly platform that would have been more in line with the brand vision of Ann Summers. It’s debatable whether they would have completely nixed the calls from the diehard campaigners – “haters gonna’ hate”, as they say – but I’d wager that the campaign would have petered out – or even not existed – if Ann Summers had announced a partnership with a couples- or female-owned website or filmmaker in which there was a much closer alignment of brand values and positioning.

Of course, given the planned introduction of age verification in the UK later this year to access porn websites, it is up for debate as to whether this commercial collaboration would have reached its true potential anyway. Does anyone – Ann Summers in particular – know to what extent (if any) porn-consuming customers are going to change their attitudes and consumption habits if credit card, driving licence or passport details will now need to be provided to continue watching?

At the end of the day, Ann Summers will of course survive, but in my opinion, they’ve earned themselves a black mark in the eyes of many – especially if the comments in online forums such as Mumsnet are an accurate barometer.

At Head Office I hope someone has been held accountable for this error, for the sake of the company’s reputation, and most importantly to learn from it. Whether somebody has received a jolly good thrashing is another matter although they’ve certainly got enough whips, floggers, and ticklers for the job in hand. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that even for Ann Summers, it’s the sort of thing noticeably absent from their HR department’s disciplinary procedure manual. What a shame.

Brian can be contacted at, found on Twitter @LasciviousMktng or phoned on +44 (0)141 255 0769.