Internet marketing

Nothing pierced through my pubescent sleep patterns quite like those Girls Gone Wild steel drums. My bedroom TV was almost always tuned to Spike TV or Comedy Central — prime hunting grounds for late-night interstitial smut — and even when I was drifting off to the ethereal sounds of endless South Park reruns, my limbic system sparked back to life as soon as it sensed the spirit of Joe Francis. 

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 TV Personalities Kourtney Kardashian, Joe Francis, Khloe Kardashian,Kim Kardashian arrive at the Girls Gone Wild Magazine Launch party held at Area Nightclub on April 22, 2008 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In the early aughts, Girls Gone Wild — a soft-core porn franchise starring amateur college-aged women — was an everlasting presence in cable TV marketing. Straight-up, no-holds-barred pornography was never allowed to occupy those commercial breaks, and the eternal lameness of 1-900 sex line ads never aroused me, even as a sinewy 12-year-old. But somehow, the GGW estate — and its heavy reliance on euphemism and innuendo — slipped past the censors and mesmerized an entire generation of middle school boys. 

The target market was emasculated dads, several decades removed from college, willing to plunk down 25 angry, horny dollars every month to reimagine a more virile version of their glory years. Millennials like me just happened to be caught in the crossfire. The first pornography I ever consumed consisted of heavily censored scenes from Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and every other hotbed of university excess, teased out three times a night from every 18-and-up club in the country. Some of the sweaty implications were lost on me — I didn’t know what going “wild” meant, and I don’t think I’d even started masturbating yet — but that didn’t stop me from pouring out of bed every time I heard those clarion steel drums. 

Clearly, I’m not the only one. Just look at the comments that dot a YouTube video that preserves that tropical Girls Gone Wild theme in its native form.

  • “Brings back so many memories from when I was younger and would stay up all night just to see these infomercials!”
  • “Ahhhh, the sweet sound of covertly fondling my youthful genitalia.”
  • “I beat off with this in the background every now and then for old times sake.”

There is a rich history of men comparing notes on their earliest sexual triggers. For my demographic — dudes in their late 20s and early 30s — typical touchstones include Max’s girlfriend from A Goofy Movie, the Christina Aguilera “Dirrty” video and the NSFW tab on the Newgrounds.com Flash cartoon database. But I don’t think anything was quite as universally enervating as the Girls Gone Wild commercials, which were essentially a highlight reel of Francis’ many sojourns into the most chaotic college campuses in America. 

None of us had a firm grasp of the internet in 2003: Video streaming was a mystifying postulation on early Internet Explorer, and the family PC was enforced with a strict safe search ombudsman. If you wanted even a whiff of pornography in motion, your best bet was to cross your fingers through every commercial break. Formative horniness is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, so it was no surprise that some of us began to ritualize the nightly GGW hunt.

“I remember being around 11 or 12, and if I was staying over at a friend’s house, we would scout the three channels late at night that would air the Girls Gone Wild commercials,” says Brian, a millennial in Brooklyn who understandably wishes to remain anonymous. “It was like a jackpot if we got the commercial. One time — and this is super weird — but everyone was trying not to stand up cause they were all fully torqued. The shows all sucked after 11 p.m., so it was a game to see who could find it.”

Personally, I never engaged in any sanctified group smut hunts. I believe all of my Girls Gone Wild explorations were solo. My worst nightmare — that my parents would burst through the door, witness the sins on television and restrict me to network television and Nickelodeon — never came true. But, like Brian, I do remember those commercials being an ironclad part of young adolescent society. There were plenty of exchanges around the lunch table about the taboo riches hiding deep in basic cable safe harbor. Again, I think we were aware that we liked boobs, but I didn’t have a clear idea about what was supposed to happen afterwards. Sex, as a concept and a physical act, was lost on us. We were just kids, after all.

“We had no idea what we’d do if we were actually in a sexual scenario. I was still searching ‘boobs’ in Google,” Brian explains. “It was kind of a mystery, I guess. Like I remember my friend A.J. legitimately thought you peed in a girl’s butt to have sex.”

My preteen intercourse theories were closer to the biological truth than A.J.’s doctrine, but his confusion is incredibly relatable. The violence and cravenness of traditional mainstream porn is tuned to those who have long since desensitized themselves through endless evening wanks. At a certain point, objectively shocking images — like the buxom Marge Simpsons in the banners surrounding every Pornhub video for some fucking reason — fail to leave much of an impression. It’s just another day at the office. We’re capable of normalizing everything. 

That’s what Walt (not his real name) remembers about the Girls Gone Wild commercials. They were always stubbornly soft core. You never saw too much, so that grown men would order the tapes to see it all. But as a kid, that suppression was a necessary buffer from the overwhelming gnarliness of the adult industry. Walt found that out the hard way, when he went searching for the real thing. “I vividly remember looking up porn for the first time when I was 11 and seeing a woman giving a blow job and being genuinely shocked and maybe even a little upset,” he tells me. “To go from the censored GGW ads to full graphic porn is seared into my mind.”

I cannot connect the dots as evenly as Walt can, but I do have a distinct memory of typing the word “naked” into my URL bar and seeing some stuff that I most certainly did not want to see. (That night ended with me crying in my parents’ room; the guilt was unbearable.) Girls Gone Wild commercials were the shallow end of the pool. We mastered that territory before we set off into the wilderness. But the deeper I dug, the more I learned that it wasn’t just straight dudes who had their adolescence kickstarted by Joe Francis. 

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Creator of the Girls Gone Wild Series Joe Francis (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Alex, a 28-year-old in L.A., tells me that the brand is responsible for his inaugural queer ideation. The Girls Gone Wild TV spots never did much for him, but once in a blue moon, a Guys Gone Wild ad would trickle across Comedy Central. Those videos were a gender-flipped variation on the franchise’s formula, and the scandalized images of beefy dudes on mechanical bulls, or a fraternity playing football naked, reached inside Alex’s soul. Guys Gone Wild was allegedly marketed to young women, but he hasn’t been the same since.

“Those commercials would always start the same, but then they’d either veer into the girls or the guys,” he says. “When it was the guys, it was like a life-altering excitement. I remember being like, ‘Why do I love this? Why is it so good?’ I became a much bigger fan of South Park once I knew those commercials existed.”

Eventually, GGW commercials drifted out of our lives as we all graduated to something greater than bad late-night TV to get our rocks off. Pornhub transfers over 18,000 terabytes of data every day. We’re no longer fighting for scraps. Girls Gone Wild itself went bankrupt in 2013, which was a welcome jettisoning by all accounts. Francis is a world-renowned bastard; his brief empire found him constantly embattled in legal charges ranging from prostitution to false imprisonment. Gone Wild famously never paid any of its participants, many of whom signed waivers while inebriated, alone and surrounded by predatory men. (The only compensation, if you can call it that, was GGW schwag.) 

The “barely legal” porn genre isn’t going anywhere, and your feelings about it are likely tied to your own opinions about the age of consent and personal autonomy in the adult industry. That said, it’s hard to argue that Girls Gone Wild, and its grooming process, wasn’t coercive at best and exploitative at worst. Today, the brand is remembered as a knowing accomplice to the revenge-porn boom that still ravages the web.

All of this is to say that, for as many warm memories that me and my kin have about our childhood Girls Gone Wild foraging, nobody I spoke with had many positive feelings associated with the brand today. We were kids, which offers us some plausible deniability about the ugliness inside of those DVDs. But it’s still a little weird that Francis — with his vindictive instincts, psychopathic tendencies and cynical worldview — was allowed to introduce pornography to a vast cross-section of American youth.  

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 Joe Francis  (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

“I’m a pretty sex-positive adult, so in general I’d say most anything is okay as long as everyone involved is happy and nothing involved harms anyone,” says Harold, who also grew up on GGW ads. “But thinking about it now, the heavily pushed ‘barely 18’ angle on GGW is super creepy, especially given the presumed target audience. It’s definitely not the kind of thing I’d look for now.”

He adds that when he considers the commercials in a vacuum — severed from the contextual darkness — they feel like a fairly benign part of adolescence. “That’s what you do when you’re 12,” he says. “You take any porn you can get and find the most reliable way to get more of it.” 

For us, that meant Joe Francis and Louisiana State University. For others, it meant an uncle’s basement smut or the fabled nudie mags in the woods. We don’t get to choose the specifics of our first brush with porn. The best we can hope for is to be responsible porn consumers in the future, no matter how long those steel drums reverberate within us.


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Luke Winkie

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego. In addition to MEL, he’s written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the New York Times, Gizmodo, Vox and anywhere else good content can be found.