An ad for a "smart" vibrator could not compete for attention with workers washing a building at Van Ness Avenue and Jackson Street in San Francisco. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)
ou can see it almost a block away: the word "orgasm" in gigantic letters on a San Francisco bus shelter. Although a seeming milestone in the world of outdoor advertising, it's not at all clear what's being sold.
The product in question is a "smart" vibrator called the Lioness -- a cross between a sex toy and a fitness tracker that produces data synced to a smartphone app.
"People can use this to figure out what works for them and what doesn't," said Liz Klinger, CEO and co-founder of Lioness, a women's sexual health company. "You can tweak it to your heart's content."
My first encounter with Klinger and Lioness co-founder James Wang was in the basement of Sutardja Dai Hall on the UC Berkeley campus in February 2015. An editor at California Magazine had asked me to do a story about the venture, then known as SmartBod, which was developing the vibrator with the help of a Cal technology incubator.
More than three years later, the startup is located in an airy office near Jack London Square in Oakland, occupied by seven full-time employees and three interns. The firm started shipping the vibrator in August 2017. Klinger said that they've sold more than 1,000 of the $229 devices and Lioness is on target to be profitable this year or next.
The Lioness, which belongs to the "rabbit" genre of vibrator made famous in a 1998 "Sex and the City" episode, provides biofeedback on one's sessions and measures many aspects of sexual pleasure, including how long it takes to have an orgasm, its duration and its intensity. Much like with a Fitbit, Klinger said, users can track their experiences and experiment in a structured way -- and there are lots of software updates.
Users have ranged from women in their mid-20s to an 86-year-old. Some are Silicon Valley types -- the "quantified selfers," Klinger said -- but many Lioness buyers are from Texas, Utah, the Midwest and the Deep South.
"There are a lot of people who have questions about sex," she said. "This is a way to observe things about yourself."
Klinger has noticed how, in her case, the data change based on such variables as alcohol, porn, stress, menstrual cycle, using the vibrator with a partner and, on 4/20, edible cannabis, which produced more forceful vibrations than she'd ever experienced.
"There were these peaks that would not stop," Klinger said, as she held up her smartphone to illustrate the point.
The company has won numerous awards, including second place at the South by Southwest 2014 Business Idea Challenge, and appeared at a pop-up at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Still, there are easier things in life than marketing an object like the Lioness.
'So Many Restrictions' on Getting Word Out
"We were thinking of ways to get the word out," Klinger said. "There are so many restrictions on this. So we started thinking of outdoor ads. A billboard on (U.S.) 101 would be great, but bus shelter ads are good for our budget."
After prolonged negotiations between Lioness and Clear Channel Outdoor advertising company, the ads went up June 18 at 10 San Francisco bus shelters, mostly on or near Nob Hill, where they'll be on display for about a month.
There were many hurdles: Ad copy was scrupulously edited, the words "vibrator" and "vagina" were forbidden -- although "orgasm" somehow made the cut -- and a full picture of the device was not allowed. All three versions of the ad have the same background: a chart of pelvic-floor vibrations during an orgasm, captured with the Lioness app.
"You'll only recognize it if you're in the know," said Klinger.
But isn't that a problem? When is an advertisement so subtle that the message becomes impenetrable?
Since the ads went up, Klinger said, San Francisco traffic on the Lioness website has quadrupled. But on a Friday morning visit to five of the ads, I didn't find a single person who could figure out what was being sold.
On Jackson at Van Ness, professional driver Dawayne Baker contemplated an ad that said "Come For Fun, Stay For Data" and showed part of the gray silicone vibrator.
"Probably it's a bunch of females running a startup," he speculated. When he found out that the product was a smart vibrator, he laughed. "I would never have known that. This is way in left field."
On Pacific at Polk, Katarina Kauftheil was equally mystified by the same Lioness ad.
"I'm not really sure. Maybe it's an awareness ad. Or something for a feminist website. But it's too discreet," said Kauftheil, a student at the Academy of Art who sits next to the ad most days while she's waiting for the inbound 12-Folsom. She admitted she'd been "intrigued" by the words at the bottom: "Revolutionizing the way we approach female sexuality."
So, had she checked out the Lioness website, since its address was right under that slogan?
"No. I guess I wasn't intrigued enough," said Kauftheil. After learning what the ad was about, she added, "I don't think you equate vibrators with data."
Two blocks east, "Good Vibes, Better Data" didn't get a glance. Even the most blatant of the ads, "Redefining Orgasm," failed to attract much attention -- not unlike bus shelter ads for 24 Hour Fitness, the SPCA, Super Lotto and Alaska Airlines, featuring Kevin Durant. Instead, passers-by were fixated on other devices and oblivious to their surroundings.
At the southeast corner of Clay and Leavenworth, a restaurant worker who gave his name only as Tran couldn't make sense of the orgasm ad. "I think it's how to get high with sex," he finally decided. "But people don't have time to think about this."
Ads for vibrators are nothing new. The object debuted as a home medical appliance in 1899 and showed up in magazine advertisements by 1904. Fourteen years later, an ad in a Sears Roebuck catalog -- for "aids that every woman appreciates" -- described a $5.95 device as "very useful and satisfactory for home service."
'Part of the Neighborhood'
Still, Klinger believes the presence of Lioness ads on the streets of San Francisco has broken new ground. A few days after the ads were installed, she went into the city to check them out.
"One was right by CVS and Trader Joe's and in a normal-looking area," she recalled. "I went, 'Oh my God, I never thought this would happen.' It's a great feeling. You're part of the neighborhood, where people are getting prescriptions or groceries. Even if it's subtle, you're being treated in the same way as everyone else."
Ads for formerly taboo subjects like marijuana have popped up on buses and billboards. Commercials for erectile dysfunction remedies are all over TV. But even though women's bodies have been used to advertise all kinds of things for decades, Klinger said, it's still challenging to find ways to publicize products designed for female pleasure. Unbound, a company that sells sex toys for women, discovered that earlier this year when the MTA in New York City initially rejected its subway ad campaign, claiming it violated rules against obscenity.
Clear Channel makes the final decisions on bus shelter advertisements, based on the approved ad policy of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.
"We have not received complaints or feedback" about the Lioness ads, he said.
In an email, Lioness marketing manager Corinne Santoro wrote, "Clear Channel was very willing to work with us to find a way to make this successful, which was very refreshing. It did seem clear, however, that they didn't have a lot of experience working with subject matter like ours."
There didn't appear to be any actual guidelines, Santoro said, and Clear Channel had to approve everything internally to make sure the ads complied with "community standards."
"Interestingly, they had absolutely no problem with including the orgasm data," said Santoro. "They figured, correctly, that very few would actually be able to identify it for what it is."