Battle of Somm puts the focus on Internet porn >

The court case against the md of CompuServe’s German division will not endear advertisers to porn sites, despite their huge success.By Matt Toor. Mat Toor is features editor of Escape Magazine

Confirmation last week that Felix Somm, managing director of CompuServe’s German subsidiary, is to face charges of distributing pornography has focused attention once again on the role adult material is having on driving demand for Internet and online access.

The German authorities maintain Somm could have prevented the alleged transmission of illegal child pornographic pictures and Nazi images over CompuServe by its users. CompuServe denies he has any case to answer. Despite the problems on policing the content of its news groups, CompuServe insists it acts quickly to exclude unacceptable content from its system.

Beyond the international censorship debate surrounding the publication and censorship of pornography on the Internet, a startling and unpalatable fact has come into relief. While mainstream advertisers, marketers and publishers are wondering how on earth to make money from the Internet, the sex industry is already coining it.

Consider this statistic thrown up in a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in the US: 83.5 per cent of all images on the Internet are of a sexual nature.

Or how about these figures – the adult Website Amateur Hardcore has racked up a staggering 50,449,545 hits between January 1 and mid March, while another newly launched adult site, ABC-Web, is attracting an average of 337,745 hits a day.

Indeed, a recent estimate in the US magazine Interactive Week suggested that the 10,000-odd adult-related sites on the Web are already generating more than $1bn in revenues a year – mainly from credit card subscriptions. Amateur Hardcore, for instance, has over 120,000 subscribers paying $10 a month to access its database of pictures and videos. That is more than the entire estimated UK subscriber bases for any individual UK online service provider bar CompuServe UK.

While many advertisers may find it unpalatable, it is adult sites and directories which deliver the mass audiences which put non-adult Web destinations in the shade. Not only do they deliver more volume than nearly every other site on the Web (bar the search engines and Netscape’s home page) they are also viewed regularly by people who have paid for access.

Of course, agencies and marketers have to be wary. Many of the sites – Amateur Hardcore among them – feature images and videos that would be illegal if published in a UK magazine. Small wonder that they are not exploited by banners and hotlinks to the new Snickers campaign or the latest Guinness screensaver.

But by the same token, many of the most popular sites don’t feature any dubious imagery at all. Persian Kitty’s Adult Links, for instance, is merely a structured guide not unlike Yahoo!, which features links onto thousands of sex-related pages elsewhere on the Web. Yet this simple list of hot-links attracts an average of 266,000 individual visitors (as opposed to hits) every day.

So, while advertisers don’t think twice about advertising on Yahoo! – which, after all, features its own Adult links section – they appear to baulk at a similar site covering a subject matter that is responsible for over 80 per cent of the traffic on the Net.

The most “acceptable” adult site of all, Playboy (http://www.playboy.com), does pick up some mainstream advertising such as the travel incentive company Traveller’s Advantage and the news agency CNet. But even here it appears brands that are happy to endorse the Playboy magazine are reluctant when it comes to the Website.

The irony is that time and time again, from the advent of photography to the arrival of the VCR and now the Internet, it is the sex industry that is the first to embrace and make money from new media.

The question is, how quickly can brands and publishers who are squeamish about exploiting such a core interest among Net surfers give the mass of Internet users equally compelling content?

Until they do, “respectable” sites will remain as they are today – a minority element within a minority medium.

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