BigChurch Means Big Money For Penthouse
We’re not the first to notice and double-take. Penthouse Media Group Inc.’s ownership of a Christian dating website called BigChurch.com has been mentioned by a few publications, but usually as an ironic side note. Understandable. It’s kind of a heavy (yes, quite loaded) subject. However, PMGI CEO Marc Bell tells WebProNews it’s just business.
Newsweek brought some more attention to the, putting it mildly, counterintuitive pairing earlier this week with the eye-grabbing and head-scratching headline "Penthouse Gets Pious." Author Jennifer Ordonez followed up with a somewhat deferential take on how Penthouse was broadening its horizons following its $500 million acquisition of Various, Inc., the company that brings the Internet various ways to find likeminded friends.
You may be more familiar with FriendFinder, which will replace the name Penthouse on the corporate letterhead soon, or with the main reason Penthouse picked up Various—Adult FriendFinder. The 18 to 34 year-old male demographic, everybody in the advertising business knows, is the sweet spot. Along with Adult FriendFinder came 600,000 affiliates promoting memberships to 260 million sets of eyeballs at websites like Bondage.com, GayFriendFinder, JewishFriendFinder, LesbianPersonals.com, and LikeMyGayPhoto.com, and 1.2 million paying subscribers to sites like BigChurch.com.
BigChurch offers dating services, Bible search and commentary in four different languages, and boasts half a million Christian members worldwide, though a job posting on the site, the high-salaried requirements for which presume a certain comfort level with adult content, boasts 8 million active members. A footnote at the bottom disclaims any expectations of real-time numeric accuracy, though.
For as little as $5.55 per month (interesting sequence of numbers, but three sixes perhaps would have set off alarms) you can connect romantically with others "compatible with your Christian values," as promised on the About page, complete with daily horoscopes.
Compatibility issues are left at the signup page, it would seem, for if you’d rather be an affiliate of BigChurch.com, then FriendFinder and PMGI claim you can make up to $30,000 per month and even earn "a whirlwind weekend in Sin City with gorgeous Penthouse Pets at your side," echoing what many know already: God is big business.
It’s been said before that the horizon beyond the all-inclusive social network like MySpace holds more exclusive, niche networks, neatly dividing up the audience along demographic lines. Targeting becomes that much more pinpoint, and a boon to networks offering direct access to individual markets. In 2005, the US market for religious publishing and products reached $7.3 billion.
If you’ve made it this far into the article—if you made it past the first paragraph—the idea that the self-titled "largest global adult entertainment company" owns and operates a Christian dating site may seem a bit incongruent. But CEO Marc Bell doesn’t seem to think so. Bell told WebProNews the company, in advance of an IPO, will be changing its name to FriendFinder Networks. These days they are a social network company, of which Penthouse is just one brand making up a mere 10 percent of its business.
"[Penthouse] doesn’t represent what we do," said Bell, who equated the soon-to-be FriendFinder Network with MySpace or Facebook. As for BigChurch and Penthouse under the same roof, Bell was pragmatic, saying it was just like owning two separate businesses. Under the FriendFinder Network umbrella, BigChurch and Penthouse are independent from one another.
When pressed, Bell dismissed suggestions BigChurch membership would take issue with the site’s ownership, noting both that many Penthouse subscribers hailed from the Bible Belt (indeed, this year’s Pet of the Year is from Mississippi), and that his business partner, Dan Staton is a devout Catholic.
Though Bell seemed to think the idea of a fundamental conflict existing was rather foreign considering BigChurch and Penthouse are separate businesses, we presented the simple fact that Penthouse owned a Christian dating site to a number of area Christians* to get their reaction.
Dr. Greg Waltermire, pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., said Penthouse owning a Christian website "undermines the very relationship [the church] is seeking to establish. I think there’s a temptation for people who find themselves lonely, and a person could overlook that type of affiliation." But Dr. Waltermire characterized Penthouse as a company not known for altruism, and felt the Christian community was being viewed as an untapped market to be exploited for profit.
"Jack the ripper can give you some candy but I don’t want it from him," he said.
Christopher Keeton, a pastor for the Church of God in Northeastern Kentucky, agreed such a relationship was preying on the loneliness of religious people for profit, and doubted the site membership would remain if they knew where their money was going.
"Matthew 7:15 says, ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves,’" said Mr. Keeton. "It would seem that PMGI is attempting to earn ‘false profits’ by pandering to a group they hope are too trusting or naive to discover the truth."
Keeton expressed concern that ownership was not disclosed clearly enough. Indeed, it is not clear on the homepage, as it is copyrighted to Global Alphabet, Inc. The "business" pages, however, are copyrighted to Various, Inc. Though currently the management link now reroutes to Penthouse directly following our conversation with Mr. Bell, it used to look much like the management page at GayFriendFinder and German FriendFinder, with Rob Brackett at the helm of all of them.
Sarah Parham, Women’s Campus Minister at the University of Kentucky Wesley Foundation, a Methodist organization, expressed similar concerns and doubted membership knew who owned the site. "It would take church out of the equation," she said, acknowledging though, "young Christians tend not to draw their lines as clearly." She doubted that young ones used it, considering the college-aged demographic had a large real-world network of singles from which to draw.
All of these are Kentucky Protestants, though. What about a Catholic from farther down the Bible Belt, such as Mr. Bell defended?
When presented with the information, Nicole John, a Catholic from Atlanta, had to take a minute to process it. "That doesn’t make much sense to me," she said. "They just don’t seem to go together." Though married and not a fan of online dating sites in general, Mrs. John felt eHarmony, whose founder is a vocal Christian, would be a better match. "My recommendation is go to church instead," she said.
Though BigChurch.com is under a subscription model now, Bell says the site will be moving to a free, ad-based model, but couldn’t say when that would happen. It’s hard to say if that would make a difference to potential members. Mr. Bell also assured us that no adult content would appear on a non-adult site.
BigChurch.com requires potential members to be 18 years of age.
*We would have polled BigChurch members themselves, but it was impossible to do so without paying to join the site. We’re sure you understand.