by Oli Withams
There aren’t many times when it’s ‘ok’ to talk about adult-content, particularly in a work or professional context. It is rarely a polite water-cooler conversation starter. But the recent news involving Onlyfans has got everyone talking, and it provides an interesting example of how backtracking continues to present an attractive yet dangerous move for brands.
By their own words, Onlyfans is “the social platform revolutionizing creator and fan connections”, with “artists and content creators from all genres, allowing them to monetize their content”. However, the overriding perception of the platform is that the majority of the content hosted on their site is of an adult nature – it has built its visibility amongst consumers based on this type of content, which makes it all the more surprising when Onlyfans announced last week it would be banning explicit content on its site. Nude content would have been permitted, just not explicit material – you try drawing the line on that. It would be like TikTok saying you that can no longer dance in videos, but you could sway side to side – sure, there are other ways you can use the platform, but you would be removing the thing it’s come to be associated with.
But there was another move in this tale that is of more interest to us PR professionals, as Onlyfans completely u-turned on this announcement altogether a few days ago. Brands backtrack all the time – this act in itself is nothing new – but what is distinctly different here is that Onlyfans moved to fundamentally change its purpose and reason for being, alienating its users and removing confidence within the platform before doing so.
I can’t think of many brands that have thrived after having made a such a definitive move and then reversing it within days. In today’s instant news and instant opinion culture, brands can’t afford to act boldly and then abruptly u-turn without a severe backlash and disenfranchisement of fans. The European Super League is testament to that, with many football fans still resenting clubs for their suggested money-grabbing approach. The shockwaves of these feelings will continue to ripple throughout the football world, as the clubs involved appeared to be so out of touch with what fans really wanted.
It’s the same with Onlyfans. It appears that no consultation with creators took place, and given the bold approach, there was little attempt to moderate or meet in middle – particularly bizarre given the platform was looking to change its original and core purpose. If Onlyfans had shared an alternative route that they would be going to pursue in lieu of adult content, it would have at least offered a new revenue stream to guarantee the platforms longevity.
Backtracking leaves door open to distrust
(and possible exodus)
It was certainly a brave move to announce the banning of explicit content at first, but an even braver move to then backtrack – not least because of the debate driven, but also in that many content creators have since announced plans to join new platforms that respect sex workers. Given the success of the platform during lockdown was driven (largely) by adult content, how many creators will end up leaving now, given that it’s no longer a certainty? Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson has already spoken out about how she is considering creating her own app to stand up for sex workers, and I hardly imagine she will be the only one considering a departure.
It’s also worth mentioning that Onlyfans is only ‘suspending’ the ban – there’s no clear indication whether this is permanent or temporary. The language chosen by Onlyfans in its Twitter statement and communication to creators does nothing to reassure users whether this reversal is final or indeed a double bluff. Platforms like Tumblr have opted to ban adult content in the past (and have stuck with their decision), but users and creators alike must feel left in a vulnerable position given the uncertainty created by Onlyfans tepid backtracking.
What can we take away from this? If you’re going to make a bold move, have the alternative route lined up. Know your shopper and consumer through consultations with them, and avoid keeping them in the dark. But certainly don’t backtrack and allow doubt and mistrust to take the place of confidence within your brand.