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Viacom's Porn Ads Show How Madison Avenue Could Rescue San Fernando Valley

Viacom (VIA)'s Paramount Vantage unit is advertising the new Luke Wilson movie "Middle Men" on hardcore porn sites, a move that could potentially pave the way for an interesting convergence between the adult-content world as a mature medium and the mainstream advertising business as a paying client. The ads aren't just a few stray banners, they're full trailers in the pre-roll position on sites like YouPorn, a sort of X-rated YouTube. (Not safe for work, obviously.)

"Middle Men" is intended for an adult audience: It's about some entrepreneurs who, in 1995, figure out that they can make a fortune taking credit card numbers over a "brand new invention" (the internet) in return for serving porn. Like "Boogie Nights" or "Blow," the film plots the group's meteoric rise and fall during the dotcom bubble. Giovanni Ribisi and Kelsey Grammer also star.

There's been a lot of talk about the world of advertising and porn moving closer together, but most of that closeness involves the former stealing ideas from the latter, and the latter trying to hook its brands onto the former. Assuming it's not just a publicity stunt, the Paramount buy is a significant step beyond that. It suggests that mainstream brands ought to admit that porn sites gather a massive audience, and that the advertising on those sites doesn't always have to consist of ads for other X-rated content. In other words, Paramount is treating YouPorn (and whichever other sites its trailers are on) as mass media, just like NYT.com or YouTube.

There risk here is that, as a publicly traded company, Viacom will face protests from people who believe that for moral reasons it should not be giving ad dollars to porn companies. That risk is real: Paramount's ads are running in front of content that makes Playboy look like Nickelodeon.

From the adult industry's point of view, the Paramount experiment arrives in the nick of time: Although adult content is popular, the truly dirty secret of the industry is that its business model is hopelessly broken. No one wants to pay for porn any more. Revenues are declining across the board due to piracy and vast supplies of free content from amateurs. If other brands follow suit, the San Fernando Valley may find that Madison Avenue is its knight in shining armour.

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