It is often said that pornography is a particularly innovative field, capable of stimulating not only technological development, but also the languages of media. Here, I want to talk about eco-pornography, an old-but-maybe-new shade of greenwashing practices which seems to be more and more institutionalized and legitimated nowadays. And no: eco-pornography is not (only) about enjoying nature.
Unfuck nature by a simple click
In late August 2019, Pornhub – one of the most visited platforms dedicated to online pornography – launched a charitable campaign called The Dirtiest Porn Ever, a brilliant piece of communication aiming to rise awareness about plastic pollution in oceans. The campaign consisted of a pornographic video in which two well known porn actors have intercourse on a paradisiac beach covered by plastic waste. While the two protagonists are having sex between plastic bottles, people in white coveralls branded with big Pornhub logos collect the trash around them. With ironic statements such as »At Pornhub we have a motto, ‘the dirtier the better’, but even for us there’s a limit«, the teaser video catches media attention and states that Pornhub will donate to an ocean cleaning project of a non-profit organization according to the amount of total views of the full-length uncensored video. Each viewer is hence asked to »give a hand« to the environment by doing something good for themselves.
Except for the winking language and the high abstraction of the cause-consequence action asked from the audience – Why shall I watch the whole digital video to trigger donations? – this is nothing new. The outsourcing of responsibility is a well-tuned practice of companies that prefer to unload the duty of solidarity to the individual.
Pornhub is not new to corporate social responsibility campaigns. It collects various projects under the label of a philantropic division called Pornhub Cares. All of them share similar engagement strategies and marketing languages, mostly based on a linguistic joke – assonance or paradox – that connects well known porn keywords with more serious content such as early detection of breast and testicular cancer, environmental protection or sexually transmitted infections in retirement homes. Many of these campaigns are curated by Officer & Gentleman, a communication agency that »like[s] to break the rules of advertising«.
And they for sure do their job: in Beesexual, saving bees is facilitated by short videos of bees pollinatig flowers dubbed with the voices of known pornstars; in Panda Style users are invited to upload a video of themselves having sex in a panda costume. Donations are based on the amount of views of a specific video or category on the platform – from one cent each thousand views to 100 dollar donations per uploaded video or, as in Pornhub Gives America Wood, every 100 views of »big dick« videos Pornhub would plant a tree. An honorable intent that allows everyone to give the environment »a hand« with relatively low effort.
But other than generating a large amount of satisfied visitors, does all this engagement really help nature? Officer & Gentleman has no doubt: in »just 2 weeks, the campaign racked up more than 28 million views and over 700 news stories. But more importantly, we got people more passionate than ever about saving the beach.« In reality, although passion for the environment was probably ignited, the concrete effects of all this collective labour are nowhere to be found. No follow-up release communicated the effective amount of donations, supposedly collected by seeing the entire full-length video, which seems to have only 11 million single views. This quick comparison lets us suspect that the campaign did not actually generate so much traffic on the Pornhub website: the same couple of performers has a dozen videos viewed in their »portfolio« up to 35 million times – and they are only porn and have no social cause. Needless to say, the communication pattern seems to repeat itself in various other Pornhub Cares campaigns.
Pornoecologies: is this greenwashing or only smart advertisement?
Pornhub’s marketing strategy seems to be quite simple to unpack and label as greenwashing, but it feels weird to attack the company for its poor coherence in their claims about saving the ocean through masturbation.
There is a certain connection between the campaign The Dirtiest Porn Ever and the actual birth of the concept of ‘greenwashing’, which was created by an environmental activist realizing on an exotic island that some claims do not match the real intention of the company behind them.
But despite the visual imagery, we might find another term better suiting here, a term that was used in the 70s as a synonym for ‘greenwashing’: eco-pornography – or its reverse, pornoecology.
If ‘eco-pornography’ initially recalled something like »the rape of nature« and maybe was abandoned for being a bit too dramatic, in the 90s ‘pornoecology’ was used by italian anthropologist Franco La Cecla with some interesting shades of meaning. He focused his critique on the relation between nature and media, criticizing how the complexity of nature is simplified through what he calls a »waltdisneying« process. Back then, pornoecology meant the obscene process through which media represent and abstract natural resources, making them something that is not dirty, does not smell and – thanks to this approachable simplicity – are used from media to basically confirm themselves (the media). A bit like what Pornhub does now in its creative advertisement: a lot of visibility for a cheap campaign.
The pornography here is far away from the couple having intercourse on the polluted beach. From what the adult entertainment business teaches, it is all about an obvious agreement between the viewer and the viewed. Everyone knows these narratives are staged; so it is mostly about the expectations one puts into that.
In contemporary eco-porngraphic campaigns performed by the best agencies, even if the viewer notices something that does not work in the logical structure of an environmental campaign, most of them comply with it by having a laugh on it or sharing it on social media. As in an erotic media product the audience accepts the maybe sloppy acting because they know this is leading to a (also fake) orgasm. A similarly empty symbolism for nature occupied the reflection about ecology and environments – and therefore the ways companies structure their greenwashing campaigns around that. They know, in fact, that for the average consumer this will unleash a sort of erotic infatuation for ANY eco-friendly intention, something that is rarely questioned.
But in the end, what did we want from Pornhub? Did we really expect them to actually take the role of »champion of the environment« seriously? Or is it us being naive, expecting a world-wide corporation to honestly engage in the topic – other than riding the ecological wave and contemporary topic in big advertisement campaigns and some donations to some unknown NGOs?
Eco-pornography is a commercial strategy
The digital version of sustainable consumerism proposed by many eco-labeled products, even digital products or services such as search engines or pornographic entertainment, now use sustainability as an additional marketing tool and not with a real intention of reducing environmental impact. But we should not get fooled by their intentions.
In a previous article done by the servus.at Research Lab 2019 we mentioned Ecosia – the green search engine, working with advertisement and planting trees – as another example of greenwashing in a digital realm. After digging into Pornhub’s environmental campaigns, we can notice that both platforms root their sustainability projects in publicity revenues, which are supposed to be the generator for funds re-routed for a greater cause: the environment. This practice is based on a specific kind of engagement with their public: they take a little action that everyone is doing on a (more or less) daily basis and make it become an action through which people can also »help the environment«. Everyone wants to help nature – best with little personal effort or as part of a funny joke – but without questioning much the larger picture and the causes for it. And in this, the more insignificant the action, the better for the campaign. But the actual removal of pollution is rarely at stake.
It is known that corporate charity covers specific marketing functions which are nowadays fundamental components of financial ecosystems. Each large corporation has to do this, no matter how fake it might look.
Coming back to our example, Pornhub’s main marketing strategy is to normalize pornography through a »on-your-face« joke and ironic engagement, so that even if porn is still a taboo-ish topic, Pornhub manages to have people talking about itself. If ecological activism managed to bring the topic of environment high in the media attention, companies would adopt it for their own agenda.
We therefore cannot blame Pornhub much for following its own interests and structure a communication campaign based on environment, but we can be aware of it. Learning from the porn industry, but extending to the general production sector, we should stop being romantic and accept that in this moment environmental friendliness is a well-functioning advertisement concept for audience recruitment, helping the financial ecosystem of the platform rather than the physical ecosystems out there. Nothing more.
Shall we still blame the filthy capitalists? Sure, but activists also have to change gear. Now that the industry has understood that looking environmental friendly is great for the corporate ecosystem, it is also important to accept that the achievement of bringing public attention to the environment will be always used against its original activist purpose. Activist weapons should then accordingly evolve in the future.