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It’s time we had an adult conversation about PornHub’s free pass in ad land

PornHub has made use of brave, innovative and disruptive advertising and stunts as it grew to become the largest and best known porn aggregator in the world. But has it had an easy ride in the press as a result? Neville Doyle, chief strategy officer of Town Square Melbourne, thinks we should hold our applause.

It is time that the ad industry sat down and had an adult conversation about a very adult topic – pornography. Or, more specifically, PornHub. On the off-chance you don’t know what PornHub is or why ad land loves it (you're fooling no one), let me catch you up.

Last week its latest stunt was being shared around Twitter, but something about all the adulation (almost solely from white, senior, male adland folk) proved just too much for me to bear. So I tweeted this.

The advertising industry celebrates PornHub’s virtues. We write articles like this one. We share the April Fools jokes and the seasonal wanking data. It is one of only 58 brands across 16 years to ever grace the cover of Contagious Magazine, one of the industry’s pillars of creative reporting. And we do all that with nary a mention of the darkness that bubbles just below the surface.  

When arguing the case (I'm getting to that) on Twitter last week, there were certain defences and whatabout-isms thrown around in response to my question.

One common one was that there are other industries that do great harm whose creative output we celebrate. ‘The parallel is bookmaker Paddy Power’ was one school of thought. It puts out bold, culturally relevant work, while 1.4 million British people have a gambling problem. And this is where I, vocally and passionately, disagree.

What PornHub is currently allowing to happen on its platform is in no way akin to the legal gambling enterprise that Paddy Power is operating – even if that may be doing enormous societal harm. You know what would be comparable? If Paddy Power was not only a bookmaker but also operated loan sharks that then went out and broke the legs of those who didn’t pay their debts on time. If that was how it was operating, then maybe you’d start to be in the same realm.

You still don’t know what I am talking about?

Well then, let’s start with the child rape videos on the site. Or how about the revenge porn it allowed to propagate, taking months to remove even after the victim (who had been hacked) contacted directly to say she was filmed without consent and that she was under 18?

Let’s talk about the 15-year-old girl who went missing. It emerged that she was sex trafficked when her mother found videos of her rape on PornHub, Periscope and Snapchat. As I write this now, there is a live petition with over 1.1m signatures which cites a similar case with a 14-year-old.

So, let me ask you a hypothetical question. If I told you there was child pornography available to view on Apple’s website, would you want to talk about its brilliant advertising? What if I said that Nike was hosting videos of rapes and then forcing rape victims to have to go to court if they wanted to get footage of their rapes removed? Would you then want to talk about its approach to comms? No? So why then, in the name of all that is holy, is this our approach to PornHub?

’But,’ some will argue, ’it’s a tiny minority of PornHub content and you cannot hold the entire company up as being evil because of some outliers.’ I would respond, ’Why the bloody hell not?’ If one in every million Maltesers produced by Mars accidentally contained cyanide, would you make the same argument? Would you forgive Coca-Cola if it put out an opioid-laced soft drink bottle every now and then? No, of course not. Because these things might affect you. But maybe you would be OK if only affected other people.

I have a theory. And it’s one that frankly makes me a bit depressed, but makes the most sense to me. We, as an industry, are all too happy to talk about Pornhub’s advertising as it makes us seem edgy and bold – but god forbid that we should ever actually admit to being something who actually watches porn. So, as non-consumers, we can just talk about the brand in abstract terms and focus on the advertising, pretending to be completely oblivious to the realities of the product and to the truly dark and terrifying side that a platform like PornHub actually has.

This is a truly important conversation and a taboo that we all need to get over. Because once you can talk openly about being someone who, on occasion, watches pornography, you can start to talk about all the vastly better ways there are out there to watch it.

There is Bellesa, an ethical porn site created and managed by women. Or, if you want to go direct to creators, Only Fans has seen an explosion of usage in 2020. Or, if you want something that combines both of those, there is Make Love Not Porn, an endeavour from adland great Cindy Gallop that was ahead of its time when it launched in 2012, but has at times struggled to reach as wide an audience as it deserves given the prudish nature of most VC funding. So do what I do. Go somewhere that isn’t despicable in what it puts into the world.

Because, as an industry, we love to talk about brand purpose. And about making the world better. And about how the treatment of women is getting better. And all of that seems to ring very hollow when we lionise a brand and a platform that brings some genuine evil into the world.

And you know what really saddens me the most? When I called out PornHub for its problems with child, rape and revenge porn, not one single person responded with shock. Not one person said, ‘Oh god, I had never heard about any of this?!’ We all know. It’s just less uncomfortable to talk about the PR stunt and ignore the rest.

One woman, Amber Benson, summarised it in a far more pithy and articulate way than I, so I will end with her words. “Don’t tell me you care about women in advertising and then glorify this [PornHub].”

Neville Doyle is the chief strategy officer of Town Square

PornHub, was offered a right of reply. A spokesperson submitted the following. 

Pornhub has a steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and under-age material. Any suggestion otherwise is categorically and factually inaccurate. Our content moderation goes above and beyond the recently announced, internationally recognized Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.

Pornhub has actively worked to put in place state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards across its platform to combat and remove all unauthorized content that breaches the platform's policies. This includes employing an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing every single upload. This allows us to take proactive action against illegal content. In addition, we have a robust system for flagging, reviewing and removing all illegal material, and age-verification tools.

The platform utilizes a variety of automated detection technologies such as CSAI Match, YouTube’s proprietary technology for combating Child Sexual Abuse Imagery content online; Content Safety API, Google's cutting-edge artificial intelligence tool that helps detect illegal imageru; PhotoDNA, Microsoft’s technology that aids in finding and removing known images of child exploitation; and Vobile, a state-of-the-art fingerprinting software that scans any new uploads for potential matches to unauthorized materials to protect against any banned video being re-uploaded to the platform.

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