One of the key barriers to sex tech business success is advertising censorship. Ad giants like Facebook block sex content even if it’s related to medical or educational purposes. This has forced industry players to get creative, using star power, or influencer marketing, as one solution.
In 2020, we saw several companies working with high-end stars to promote their products. Lora Dicarlo had Cara Delevigne, WOW Tech had Lily Allen, and Maude had Dakota Johnson. At the same time, there are concerns from some spheres of the industry. Are such celebrity endorsements more helpful or harmful?
Why advertising is challenging for sex tech
There has been a long-running history of ad giants’ having strict policies and double standards around advertising related to sex content. In many cases, ads with sexual innuendo and sexualized images are approved when geared towards men, while even discreet ads marketing products towards women are rejected. This is the case even if such content is empowerment-driven or educational.
In 2019, a group of femtech/sex tech founders (of Dame Products and Unbound Babes) organized a protest to challenge these ad standards, which they claim are unfair and biased in favor of cis gender men’s products. According to Janet Lieberman, co-founder and CTO of Dame Products, these policies as applied have fallen out of step with “the average person’s views of what should or shouldn’t be approved.”
Even as people’s views towards sex toys are moving back towards the direction of sexual wellness rather than something perverse, advertising policies have not changed to reflect this. “There’s a double standard for what is seen as obscene. [This includes] talking about men’s sexual health versus women’s sexual health; talking about products that aren’t sexual, and using sex to sell them, versus taking sexual products and having completely non-sexual ads for them,” added Janet.
The movement to protest unfair advertising standards extends beyond the adtech giants to the traditional out-of-home (OOH) space. In fact, Lieberman also filed a lawsuit against NYC’s MTA for discriminating against female sex toy advertising and rejecting their ads. In the meantime, other brands have gotten away with using images of cleavage, sexual innuendo, and phallic imagery in their ads. This includes brands selling men’s products and dating sites.
Beyond upholding double standards, when advertising platforms prevent sex tech brands from advertising, there is a host of other repercussions as well. These barriers limit sex tech brands from reaching their intended audiences. This then lowers the likelihood for investors to take the risk on them, as the primary way investors see their tech investments grow today is through the major social platforms. This creates unequal representation in the industry, and hampers future innovation.
How sex tech firms are getting around ad restrictions
To get around this, sex tech firms have gotten creative by tapping into star power to market their products to the masses.
Since 2016, OMGYes, a frank, educational, instructional website on female pleasure, has had Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) using her platform to advocate for greater awareness about female pleasure. OMGYes is backed by research into the specific sexual likes, dislikes, and techniques of more than 2,000 women ages 18 to 95, conducted in conjunction with Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute.
But the use of celebrity endorsements by sex tech brands really began to ramp up in 2020. Lora Dicarlo announced model, singer, and actress Cara Delevigne as the new co-owner and creative advisor of the woman-led sex tech startup, which offers sex tech products and wellness coaching. Meanwhile, Fifty Shades of Grey actress Dakota Johnson was named the co-creative director and an investor in Maude. Maude is a modern sexual wellness company best known for the “Vibe,” their sleek, intuitive vibrator. And It’s Not Me, It’s You singer Lily Allen was announced as the chief liberation officer of Womanizer, the German pleasure product company best known for their suction toys.
What limitations affect this approach
Celebrity endorsements have given sex tech brands a platform to advertise to millions of followers. But there’s a portion of the industry that has reservations about this approach.
Cameron Glover, a business coach for sex educators and owner of Sex Ed Business Academy, notes in a Bitch Media article that the real issue keeping people from buying sex toys is not the lack of advertisements. “Celebrity endorsement alone is not going to solve the issue of why people feel shame in their bodies and feel shame having sex,” she said. “Internal hang-ups and shame around sex keep people from purchasing (and using) pleasure products.”
Pleasure advocate Kristin Fretz, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Emojibator, a shame-free and accessible pleasure-tech brand, agrees. “I’m not sure celebrities talking about sex toys is actually going to encourage people to buy and use them.” The idea is that by featuring white, thin, and powerful celebrities using sex tech product, it can actually have the opposite effect intended by sex tech brands, making such products seem inaccessible.
What people like Fretz and Glover are saying is that our widespread anti-pleasure culture has a longstanding history, and celebrity endorsements are not enough to destigmatize and normalize such products. What is needed is education and partnering with trained sexuality professionals “who have been helping individuals do the work of unlearning [shame] for years and years.”
This approach does not necessarily undermine the usage of influencer marketing. Rather, it suggests that sex tech toys can be more selective in who they select as their ambassadors. Perhaps instead of Hollywood celebrities, influencers from the social activism and advocacy space can be tapped into to spread greater sex-positive awareness and education. Many of these influencers have massive platforms too and none of the restrictions that the media giants impose.
Measuring the impact of influencer marketing
One of the big concerns about leveraging influencers is how to measure the impact. Fortunately, as influencers’ platforms are digital, there isn’t a massive difference between tracking the impact of a paid social campaign and an influencer campaign. Depending on the goal of engaging with an influencer, there are different ways to measure success.
For awareness campaigns, where the goal is to reach as many people as possible, success can be measured in terms of engagement. In other words, the number of views, likes, comments, shares, replies, and messages on the posts shared by the influencer.
Looking at an influencer’s follower count is not enough. Over the last few years, social media platforms’ have made major changes to their algorithms to keep up with the constantly growing stream of content flooding users’ feeds. Just because someone is following an influencer account, it doesn’t mean they will see all posts from that influencer.
Sex tech brands must do their homework to familiarize themselves with the social accounts of any potential influencers before engaging them. They should also ask influencers for benchmark figures to understand what are the usual levels of engagement the influencer typically receives. This helps with understanding how the branded posts have performed in comparison.
For lower-funnel conversion campaigns, tracking links using UTM parameters can be shared with influencers to track website traffic driven by influencer posts.
For seasonal campaigns and sales, exclusive promo codes can be given to influencers and used to track store purchases that resulted from those posts.
In many other industries, influencer marketing is already generating significant results and gaining traction as a marketing mainstay. Between 2019-2020, the impact of influencer marketing in driving sales for fashion, luxury, and beauty brands increased by 18%, with marketers labeling it as one of their top goals when collaborating with creators. This is in addition to key goals of driving awareness and supporting digital strategy).
It’s also estimated that on average, businesses generate $6.50 in revenue for each $1 invested in influencer marketing.
The growth of influencer marketing platforms such as Grin, CreatorIQ, Upfluence, Creator.co, Influencity, and more is further testament to the rise of this channel. Brands are looking for alternative ways to reach their audiences without being subjected to heavy policing from ad tech giants, and sex tech brands are no different.
Engaging influencers is one way to get around unfair advertising policies for sextech, and a number of brands are already leading the way with A-list star endorsements. Ultimately, though, for sex tech brands to really break through the stigma and win their audiences over, it will take more than star power. Education is still critical in the long run in order to normalize what the industry has to offer, reduce shame and stigma, and offer solutions that cater to a broader range of individuals.