CONSUMER PR: The subtle art of selling sex

Pitching products with a sexual element to the mainstream media is a delicate business. But it is getting easier, finds Suzy Bashford.

CONSUMER PR: The subtle art of selling sex
CONSUMER PR: The subtle art of selling sex

The British press love nothing more than lapping up the salacious det­ails of a good old raunchy romp, preferably bet­ween married politicians or photogenic celebrities. But when it comes to PROs pitching in products with a sex­ual angle to mainstream media, hacks have traditionally been a bit prudish.

But this is changing fast, according to sex expert Emily Dubberley, founder of women's sex site cliterati.co.uk and founding editor of Scarlet magazine.

‘New adult trade show Passion is launching this month, Selfridges now stocks vibrators and designer male toys are just starting to come on the market,' she points out. ‘Cliterati.co.uk is att­racting more traffic every month - half a million pages imp­ressions per month and growing - and S­carlet magazine is now available at numerous mainstream outlets.'

This is borne out by the experience of Condom maker Durex, whose UK media work is handled by Myriad PR. Senior acc­ount director Vanessa Munnings says when she joined two-and-a-half years ago, tabloids that regularly show scantily clad women would not cover the company's first range of vibrators on the grounds that they were ‘family papers'. Now, says Munnings, journalists are more desensitised.

Cathy Brady, product PR and marketing executive at upmarket ‘erotic emp­orium' Coco de Mer, which sells a vast array of products from sex aids to clothing, has learned the most effective approach to the media through trial and error. ‘Journalists aren't always comfortable with pitches about sex toys or bondage products, so you have to be delicate,' she says.

Giving a product another hook, so it doesn't scream ‘sex', is a good way to strike up a conversation with the media in this category. Coco de Mer's informal seminars called ‘lessons in the art of loving' have proved a more successful way to gain coverage, as they pave the way for articles focused on relationships. Harpers, for instance, recen­tly attended a session and plans to write a feature on ‘how to fulfil your man' on the back of it.

Similarly, the fact that Coco de Mer is founded by Sam Roddick, the daughter of The Body Shop creator Anita Roddick, has been rich fodder for press interest. ‘People want to interview Sam on her views on sex and her knowledge. The Sunday Times has interviewed her several times,' says Brady.

When Frank PR foun­der Graham Goodkind was handed the brief to promote Playboy TV, he quickly identified that going into too much detail about the adult content of the channel would be a turn-off for mainstream media. ‘People know what the content of an adult channel is,' says Goodkind. ‘The trick is to make it fun and relevant and use mainstream hooks, sailing close to the wind without going over the edge into seedy stuff.'

Consequently, the agency pinned the PR strategy on the launch of the channel's first
reality TV show, Double Entry: Making it Big, about teams who are challenged to create their own adult film under the guidance of exp­ert dir­ectors.

Frank PR invited two teams of journalists into the studio to make their own movie. ‘This idea worked because the media can talk about the business of sex and write about their experience of being behind the camera, as opposed to writing about porn directly,' says Goodkind.

The campaign resulted in large features in titles including Time Out, Cosmopolitan, Metro, Ms London, FHM, Glamour and The Independent. The Financial Times also covered the business story behind the adult TV market.

For high street sex shop Ann Summers, imp­ortant angles are celebrities and gadgets. While the chain has not found the mainstream media particularly open to covering sex toys per se, journalists are much more rec­eptive if there is an interesting technology
story behind them, such as the ‘igasm', which plugs into an iPod and vib­rates to music.

Similarly, magazines and newspapers are quick to jump on stories of celebrities spotted in the shop, such as the recent coverage around Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie browsing in both Ann Summers and Coco de Mer.

Press officer Emma Chenery says: ‘If a cel­ebrity comes in, staff tell us straight away and they take a note of what they bought.' The slick PR machine also knows the value of good photos and makes sure it has a raft of fun visuals to acc­ompany events such as Halloween, Christmas and the signing of new brand ambassadors.

But Chenery admits that pitching to the broadsheets is a much harder sell and a challenge she hopes to address next year, starting with a launch party for a new range in January.

Jo Wilmot, PR consultant at boutique agency Jo Sensini PR, who worked on the launch of luxury erotic chocolates Theobroma Cacao earlier this year, agrees quality photographs can sell a saucy story. ‘We commissioned a really good photographer to take classy shots of tablets showing pictures of the

Kama Sutra. These went down well bec­ause they were seen as arty,' she says. Wilmot adds that the packaging and language around a product is crucial. For Theobroma Cacao's range of chocolates based on various body parts, she advised the client to change the names of the individual sweets to make them more aspirational.

The lips were renamed ‘chocolate pout' and the penises ‘phallic delight'. The fact that the chocolates, which retail at £25 for three, were beautifully gift wrapped also helped position them as an upmarket product, rather than trashy or tacky. The campaign resulted in coverage in Stella, Red, Country Life and The Times' Style supplement.

All PROs who have worked in this sector agree adopting a light, humourous tone with journalists when selling-in sexy stories is best. As Wilmot says: ‘Most journalists find it refreshing. I found
calling in the aft­ernoon, when they might be flagging and receptive to something entertaining, worked well.

But some people might be "challenged" by this kind of story, so it is always better to ask them whether they are happy to rec­eive background information before you send it.'

Top tips for selling saucy stories
-- Rehearse what you are going to say before you pick up the phone so you feel comfortable about the subject matter
-- Be clear about why the product is different. Push any interesting, non-sexual angles as much as possible
-- Check that journalists are happy to receive information
on what could be a sensitive subject
-- Take quality product shots
-- Remember if you are using any sexual language on press releases it is likely to get caught in spam filters so you should send out hard copies instead
-- Be careful with the language you choose. By all means be cheeky and fun but do not be too graphic or rude
-- Use attractive packaging
-- Adopt a light, humorous tone

SIDEBAR: Sex in the city-style
Launch of ‘Je Joue' by Carrot Communications

At the beginning of 2006, tech agency Carrot Communic-ations picked up the brief to launch upmarket vibrator Je Joue. This hi-tech bit of gadgetry retails at £200 and can be plugged into online software, called ‘Pleasureware', to programme it to work at different frequencies. The makers of Je Joue wanted to target the stylish, professional Sex in the City-watching female set.

According to Carrot MD Kate Hartley, the fact it was different from most sex toys and had high design values meant it captured the attention of journalists: ‘Most people don't like to discuss sex. But we pushed the technology side. We even got it in Good House-keeping. It helps too that it looks more like an MP3 player than a sex toy.'

Hartley argues that the language you use is also very important. For instance, she would describe companies working in this field as the suitably subtle ‘pleasure retailers'.

The launch focused around getting the product into journalists' hands, which involved a few potentially embarrassing conversations. The team rehearsed what they were going to say thoroughly before picking up the phones. ‘We focused on design and functionality,' says Hartley.

A few glossy women's magazines said they would not cover this type of content on principle. Similarly, on the nationals the Express and Observer Woman were not interested. However, the agency secured coverage in Company, Glamour, Arena, Grazia, Diva, The Sunday Times and This Morning.

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