Why we stopped selling vibrators

Why we stopped selling vibrators

In early 2011, Ethical Ocean had a booming catalogue of eco-friendly ‘adult’ accessories: rechargeable vibrators, vegan condoms, natural lubricants, and a great eco-sex book. We were proud to support sustainability under the sheets.

But like all businesses, we were under pressure to perform. We decided to test paid advertising to attract new people to our growing eco community. We enlisted a company called Adroll—a popular retargeting advertising company—to help us.

Retargeting is a type of Internet marketing where you advertise selectively to people who have recently visited your site. You know what I’m talking about: you visit an airline’s website for the first time, and then, for the next three weeks, their banners show up wherever you go on the Internet.

Lots of thought had been put into this. It’s often said that a company needs to get its brand in front of you five to seven times before it can convince you to be a customer. That’s why we decided to give retargeting a try.

But there was one hitch. In the process of prepping our site for retargeting, Adroll discovered we were selling three rechargeable vibrators.


We explained that we were building a community for people interested in ethical shopping of all kinds—that we had five thousand different products; and yes, three of them were adult toys. We didn’t have a problem with that.

They did though. We were told that we could not advertise on its network until we got rid of the vibrators.

We pushed back pretty hard, explaining there were no naked pictures, no crude language, and again: we only had three vibrators in our entire catalog. We cited a recent study how sexual prudery makes America a less healthy and happy place—but they were having none of it. In the company’s defense, it has to abide by Google’s policies since Google powers their ad network.

Good grief.

So, after a long internal talk, we decided to hesitantly de-list the vibrators. I had a very apologetic call to our partners—organizations like ‘Good for Her’ —and explain how we had to de-list their products. Only one book call Eco Sex survived their pillaging.

Looking back, I wish we hadn’t. It turns out retargeting doesn’t actually work very well. People find it creepy.

Plus when Ethical Ocean re-launched as a community powered social business, we no longer needed to use paid advertising anymore, and that’s a good thing. Our members set the rules, not Google.

And hallelujah…we are once again free to sell what we like—or, more specifically, what our members like.

So what do you think? Is it time to rebuild the adult section of our catalogue?

I think so.

April 26, 2012