pornhub-adsAs James Robinson wrote earlier this week, television remains the undisputed heavyweight king of advertising, handily beating digital ads in 12 rounds: According to Nielsen and Simulmedia, the average American watches 146 hours of TV each month and only 12 hours of online video.

But what if a company can’t get its message on TV, either because it doesn’t have enough cash or because its product isn’t exactly television-friendly?

Sites like Pornhub (NSFW of course) face the latter problem, pushing a product that makes prime-time audiences blush. Pornhub VP Corey Price is confident it will break through eventually to television audiences, but the adult website’s already had a Super Bowl ad rejected by CBS. It’s no surprise big network TV stations like CBS are too prude for porn, but even edgier cable stations may be a hard sell. Spike TV’s senior vice president of communications David Schwarz tells Business Insider, “We would never allow Pornhub advertising, ever.” If ever there was an outlet willing to run porn ads it’s the testosterone-addled Spike.

As a result, Pornhub must rely (for now) on social advertising, digital advertising, and organic promotion, which makes them as interesting case study for other startups that, while not restricted by social mores, may have financial roadblocks in getting on TV.

The latest untraditional marketing strategy came this week when Pornhub launched a call for “Safe-For-Work” Pornhub ads. Aspiring ad men and women can submit their entries to this Tumblr (SFW). The person behind the winning entrant has a shot at becoming the company’s next creative director, the site promises.

A campaign like this not only grabs headlines (which is its own kind of free advertising). It also allows Pornhub to set the terms of its own brand identity before even launching a national campaign.

Price described this identity to me in an email: “While our product is adult, we’ve worked very hard to make our advertisements safe for work. With the overall perception of the adult industry becoming more societally acceptable, we’re gunning to make a strong push to break through to the mainstream, and show that our ads are clever, well done, and ultimately tame.” It’s basically the inverse of GoDaddy’s porny Super Bowl ads.

Some of the most memorable user-generated entries so far include a poster of Jimi Hendrix with the tagline “He Did It,” referring to an alleged sex tape starring the rock legend unearthed in 2008. Another submission combines a clever tagline and an innocuous image for an ad that’s funny, suggestive, yet entirely harmless:

pornhub print ad

Some, like sociologist Chauntelle Anne Tibbals speaking to Business Insider, call this a publicity stunt. (People said the same thing about the failed Super Bowl ad bid). Well yeah, it could be a publicity stunt, but dismissing it as such ignores why the contest works. Pornhub isn’t so much looking for a national ad campaign because it’s already begun: this is the ad campaign.

Other clever ways Pornhub increases its visibility outside the realm of smut island is through its Insights blog. The company has a research team that publishes findings about the porn habits of its huge user base (according to Quantcast, Pornhub sees almost 15 million unique visitors a month). Some of the more fascinating insights shared by the company include data on whether religious people watch less porn than non-religious people (they don’t) or what kind of porn people in the Vatican watch (mature). Sure, you could call these marketing stunts too, except that these insights offer something of value to users. If not exactly a service, they’re certainly entertaining diversions.

Pornhub also sidesteps traditional advertising through social media, maintaining an active Twitter account and a presence on Reddit that included an Ask Me Anything thread last January. That said, social platforms can be just as puritanical as mainstream outlets. Just yesterday, Vine finally laid the hammer down on its so-called “porn problem,” banning explicit content. That may not be an issue for Pornhub whose advertising is merely suggestive of its pornographic offerings.

Facebook takes it a step further, however: Users can’t even post a link to a Pornhub URL on Facebook, not even in a private message. Meanwhile, in January Pornhub proved its as susceptible as any brand to social media screw-ups, sending out what Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopolous called “The Definitive Worst Corporate Tweet Of MLK Day 2014.”

Things like the Facebook ban are all the more reason Pornhub has to be extremely creative in how it approaches advertising. And there’s no reason other startups can’t learn something from its strategy. Converting customers through traditional digital advertising is no easy feat with some studies finding little or no correlation between clickthrough rates and conversion rates. Social media advertising can also be a Sisyphean feat — if you’re extremely, extremely lucky you score a success like Oreo’s Super Bowl tweet, but even then you only reach a fraction of television’s advertising audience.

That’s not to say smaller companies must rely on stunts to get attention (though it certainly helps. And what is advertising anyway if not a ploy for publicity?). But by offering users and potential users insights and other things of value before they come to your site, and by getting users involved in its own advertising campaign, Pornhub has found a way to hack a system that never gave it a chance.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]