When sex doesn't sell

Companies like Craigslist and Apple walk a thin line between profit and morality

When sex doesn't sellJust before Christmas, online classified service Craigslist pulled the plug on its controversial erotic services category in Canada in response to growing political pressure from Ottawa and several provinces. The move followed a similar decision in the United States after 39 state attorneys general wrote to CEO Jim Buckmaster requesting the category, nestled innocently between more mundane sounding services like “automotive” and “farm + garden,” be banned because of growing public concern that “ads for prostitution—including ads trafficking children—are rampant” on the website.

Of course, Craigslist is not the only place offering ads for erotic services. Pick up a Yellow Pages or any one of several weekly papers in major cities and there’s plenty of adult-oriented entertainment to choose from, including pages of ads for “erotic massage” and escort services—several of which no doubt intend to telegraph sex for sale. Go elsewhere on the Internet and the sky’s the limit.

But while Craigslist grabbed attention after its ads were connected to a grisly murder, dubbed the “Craigslist Killer” by media, it’s far from the first time a company has been singled out—some say unfairly—for dabbling in adult content. “It’s very difficult to predict social attitudes and mores around sex,” says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “Some of it is purely time and place and the way companies purport themselves.” In other words, when it comes to selling sex, executives walk a razor-thin line between profit and morality, or at least the public’s current conception of it.

Last month, the Marriott hotel chain suddenly announced that it was ditching its pornographic pay-per-view channels from the rooms of newly built hotels, including in Canada. Though such channels have been commonplace for decades, Marriott says that in an age of wireless laptops, iPhones and iPads, porno movies simply don’t bring in as much money as they used to. “Changing technology and how guests access entertainment has reduced the revenue hotels and their owners derive from in-room movies, including adult content,” says Marriott spokesman Jeff Flaherty. Indeed, market research compiled by Colliers PKF Hospitality Research in the U.S. shows revenue from pay-per-view movies declining by 39 per cent over the past decade. In Canada, hotel association president Tony Pollard says hoteliers here are facing a similar trend.

What Marriott didn’t acknowledge is that the skin flicks have often been a source of private embarrassment for the hotel chain, which is headed by chief executive J.W. Marriott, Jr., a devout Mormon. During the 2008 Republican leadership race, religious and family values groups attacked Mitt Romney for being a long-time member of Marriott’s board of directors. With Romney set to run again, there were no doubt fears that the controversy would be reignited (Romney stepped down from the board in January).

Canadian phone company Telus Corp. has also stepped into controversy over the distribution of legal pornography. In early 2007, after studying the mobile Web-browsing habits of its wireless subscribers, Telus rolled out a downloadable adult content service that offered racy photos for $3 and two-minute videos for $4. Reaction was swift. Although Telus wasn’t the first big communications company to sell adult content—rivals Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. (which owns Maclean’s) have adult pay-per-view channels—critics seemed to suggest that piping porn to mobile phones crossed some sort of moral threshold. “Delivering porn via cellphone is not a public service designed to meet customer needs,” concluded a Globe and Mail editorial column at the time. A Roman Catholic archbishop also condemned the company, and at least one ethical investment fund raised objections. Telus ditched the service.

Apple Inc., by contrast, is an example of a marketing savvy company that’s gone out of its way to steer clear of the “porn peddler” label, even if the speedy, touch-screen browsers of its iPhone and iPad have arguably done more for mobile pornography than Telus ever could have. CEO Steve Jobs’s strategy has been to keep anything with Apple’s name stamped on it a porn-free zone, which is why hundreds of off-colour iPhone and iPad applications have been banned by the company’s App Store. On the other hand, Playboy magazine recently announced an iPad-optimized Web-based subscription service—centrefold and all. But it must be accessed through the iPad’s Web browser, giving Jobs the ability to wash his hands of any official involvement (while still selling loads of iPads to Playboy readers).

In some ways, it’s the same argument that Craigslist tried to make before lawmakers. Buckmaster argued in a 2009 issue of Wired that Craigslist can’t be held responsible if some crazed lunatic uses the site to lure his victims any more than General Motors can be blamed for a pedestrian being killed by a reckless driver. He also suggested he was being victimized by social conservatives’ views on sex, writing on his blog in April 2009 that “cynical misuse of a cause as important as human trafficking as a pretense for imposing one’s own flavour of religious morality (‘casual sex is evil’) strikes me as wrong on so many levels.”

But the public tends to have little sympathy for those who appear to make money off the sex trade (some reports have suggested Craigslist, which only charges for a fraction of its advertisements, was still generating between $35 million and $45 million annually from adult services ads). Moreover, the nature of the ads themselves falls into a murky legal area since, in Canada at least, prostitution is not against the law, although soliciting it is (and even that is no longer clear following a ruling last year by an Ontario court that is being appealed by Ottawa).

Authorities have previously attempted to crack down on these sorts of ads with little success. In 1990, Toronto’s Now Magazine was charged with 14 counts of communicating for the purposes of prostitution, but the Crown ultimately dropped the charges. Alice Klein, the editor and CEO of Now, says that she’s all for efforts to clamp down on child and other human trafficking, but called the pressure put on Craigslist a “witch hunt” by a moral majority. “We don’t think we should be discriminating against legitimate businesses that offer sexual services,” she says, adding that all of the magazine’s ads are trackable and are screened for red flags, including mentions of “boy” or “girl” not followed by an “18+” disclaimer. “Whether there are Craigslist ads or Now Magazine ads, this business is still going to be there,” she says. “It’s just forcing it into a darker place.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.