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  • Writer's pictureStu Nugent

The Very Public Disintegration of John Thomas Toys – Or, The Importance Of PR For Sex Brands

Updated: Feb 28, 2023


It’s been a hot minute since an adult brand burned itself down on social media.


In the early days, it was once a month. A new sex toy company would appear, say something utterly inexcusable publicly, and get flamed out of existence by the very community it was trying to appeal to. Communal justice was served. And as the geothermal magmatism and chaos of the burgeoning internet cooled, public collapses reduced to one a year. Then every two years, and then five.


The last new business that I remember fully self-immolating was Fifi, a brand of male masturbator so inconceivably toxic and misogynistic that it survived less than a month. The largely self-regulating sexual community stamped Fifi out of existence even before its rancid tendrils had the chance to take root and spread its poison further. I won’t post screenshots of that particular brand’s comms here, but it was bad enough to earn it mainstream coverage in places like The Daily Dot and Cosmo. It was ugly, and unnecessary. Fifi deserved to be extinguished.


Over time, as the mantle of the adult industry began to mineralise, such infernos have become far less common. That’s progress. As adult industry professionals, we’ve been learning. But that means that when a sex toy brand spontaneously combusts today, it feels all the more egregious for its rarity, and all the more juicy too.


Right now, the volcano-de-jour is John Thomas Toys, a relatively small UK maker of large, colourful sex toys, whose business cut its teeth wooing sex workers and sex influencers with product placement deals. It was going rather well for JTT. Publicly, they seemed to enjoy an unusually outsized voice in the market, and a seemingly positive reputation among industry influencers.


No longer.


There’s every chance that you, the person reading this, are wholly unaware of the vibrant culture surrounding fantasy dildos. Ordinary people like you are often surprised to learn that the sex toy community at large is full of people who generate an income using and reviewing sex toys. People love their sex toys to the point of giving them names, and making art, and writing elaborate backstories for them.


So, I can understand that you might only be learning right now, this second, that there is a passionate, intelligent, and very vocal community of people who devote not insignificant parts of their lives to the admiration of great big silicone tentacles and obscene dragon anatomy.


Make no mistake, the community is real, and it’s full of people who are, in a lot of other respects, very much like you. And you don’t notice them because, on the whole, they keep themselves to themselves, and the community, although highly welcoming, is also quite insular. You don’t hear about this part of the adult industry until there is…


…DRAMA.


Much of JTT’s business came from partnerships with prominent sex workers and sex influencers – content creators and porn stars, that kind of thing. JTT would send its most aesthetic (or outrageous) sex products to these partners for free, or would pay them, in return for creating content with these oddly compelling sex objects. That community is small but close, and word of mouth, even when that word is paid, can drive sales for a brand that might otherwise go unnoticed, and never grow beyond a hobbyist’s garden shed.


Last week, the John Thomas Toys twitter account posted the following inexplicably stupid tweet:

I'd understand if you didn't immediately see the potential for harm implied by this tweet. Perhaps it reads to you like John Thomas Toys is trying to appeal to “good” influencers to help weed out “bad” influencers. I can understand that position.


But whatever JTT’s intentions with this bizarre and menacing swipe, what it did was frighten the hell out of the same sex workers and content creators who had helped lift the brand out of obscurity in the first place.


This stupid, flippant tweet actually represents a direct threat to doxx sex workers – to publicly release not just their names, but their addresses too. At a time when there are plenty of people who think that sex workers have no right to exist, purely because they are sex workers. It is unfathomable why JTT, even in a passing moment of frustrated frenzy, would consider making such a public statement. There's no excusing this regardless of audience, but when your audience is largely constituted of the people you're threatening? It actively defies reason.


How To Make Friends & Influencers


I can’t speak on behalf of sex workers: I’m not one. I’ll leave that commentary to those directly involved and with vested interests. I can only comment on my own narrow field of expertise: commercial communications in the sex industry. Within an hour of this poll being published, it had been removed, and John Thomas’ mentions were aflame with confused, horrified, furious customers, business partners, and influencers, most initially simply seeking reassurance that their personal details were safe with a second wave of unfilteres outrage quickly and rightly following.


It happened fast. Within minutes I had been sent screenshots in my DMs by several different people, and the consensus was unanimous: JTT had, within the space of a single tweet, set itself aflame and flung itself into a fiery caldera. The damage was done, and although JTT has subsequently posted two highly irresponsible apologies, deflecting blame onto the people they themselves had attacked and gaslighting everyone else, it was immediately clear they had severed their primary means of promotion, and would never be able to settle the debt.


(The apology implied, for example, that people were pressuring them to release the name of the social media employee who had made the threat to doxx, which they refused to do because of their strict anti-doxxing stance, even though their threat to doxx people was what started the thing to begin with. The logical gymnastics on display in this defense make my head spin, it is a monumentally bad piece of communication.)


It quickly became apparent that this was not an isolated incident, and JTT fostered a culture of hostility and disrespect towards the sex workers they had originally courted. A lot of questions remain. For example, there’s a lingering suspicion that the person handling the social media account, who JTT claimed was fired, never actually existed at all, and was simply a sock puppet for the business’ owners themselves. There have been about four influencers who have spoken out in JTT's defense but, forgive me for the conjecture, I think it's obvious they've been paid to do so.


Whatever the truth, two things are clear. First, John Thomas thought of its customers and its influencers as an inconvenience. And that is a charitable opinion. Second, they were willing two use the substantial following they had accrued to bully the sex workers on which their business depended into compliance. It’s reprehensible.


Growing Pains


The sex toy industry is maturing. Things are changing, generally for the better. In fact, I just got off a call with a group of very serious, be-suited investors who asked questions like, “to what degree do you think the sex toy industry is correlated to economic cyclicality?” We’re finally getting the kind of respect for which so many of us have lobbied so hard for so long. We’re estimated to be worth $62 Billion by 2030.


We can’t afford to keep letting people like John Thomas Toys operate through threats and intimidation. Now that we're achieving mainstream successes, we need to start acting like mainstream businesses. It’s not the 1980s anymore. You can’t run a business through bluster and noise. Especially not one in the adult industry, where the customer has more power, and a more personal relationship with our products, than any other sector of consumer goods.


There’s no PR that will undo JTT’s self-inflicted wounds. But good PR, and a more robust marketing strategy that was less dependent on being nice to influencers you secretly hate, might have prevented this from happening in the first place. This kind of thing cannot afford to happen again. We’ve moved on from the Wild West of adult industry businesses, and we’ve made progress.


We still have a long way to go though, clearly. And that’s why it’s essential that any adult brand that respects itself needs to have social and PR training, and to have a crisis management and mitigation plan to ensure that should their media relationships suddenly go sideways, they can respond effectively.


In the meantime, we all have to watch each other’s backs, as we’ve always done. In the absence of decent regulation we’ve been self-regulating for years, we're good at it. and we need to continue to be vigilant.


I'm a big advocate of intuitive, human communications over and above metric-based data in the pleasure industry. I resist professionalism in favour of fun and informality. But for brands to succeed, they need to act like grown ups.


That's why it's called the adult industry.

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