If you’ve never heard of Rule 34, it’s another of those Internet memes. The full text of rule 34 is, “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” My friend Max C., who first made me aware of this story, pointed out that Erin Esurance may well be the first “casualty” of Rule 34, a character retired because its creators were sick of all the adult spinoffs being created based on her. This is one of those corporate decisions that strikes me as not only absurd, but completely counterproductive to its stated aims.
First of all, the whole concept behind Rule 34 is something that dates back long before the Internet. When I was young one of my friends loved to show around a photocopied “greeting card” he’d gotten from someone featuring Thumper from Disney’s Bambi. The inside showed Thumper with a huge … yeah, that. Fanfiction, G-rated or XXX-rated, was being written long before there were even USENET newsgroups to collect them, let alone the colossal fanfic sites of 2012; all the Internet served to do was to make it much easier for people with a common interest to get in touch with each other and share material. Back in the day, if you were one of five hundred people in the United States with an interest in adult stories based on X television series, chances were you wouldn’t even know about any of those 499 other people all your life. Now, not only are you sharing stories with all of them, but you may even be doing things like starting dedicated websites and gatherings, and maybe even conventions. That Erin Esurance would become a subject for explicit fan-based works is nothing new; the only thing that’s changed is how much more aware people have become of that spinoff work.
It would be one thing if Esurance were getting upset that a character that didn’t lend itself well to adult situations, but can there be any doubt that Erin Esurance was one of the thousands and thousands of figures in advertising that used sex to sell? Erin was always drawn as a lithe figure in skin-tight clothing, very conventionally attractive, with sleek lines, and while the double entendres in her commercials were relatively tame by today’s standards they were still clearly there. How can people not envision an advertising (or any other media) figure in adult situations when that figure is so clearly projecting a sexual nature in order to sell product? The only way I can see people trying to argue against this is to claim that Erin Esurance shouldn’t be seen as sexual because she’s a cartoon and cartoons can’t be sexual. The last twenty years of the anime/manga boom in America should be enough to dismiss that in and of itself, and I’m going to dig back even further than that here shortly.
Not only was Erin Esurance an overtly sexual figure, but her “secret agent/spy” character was also a very clear play to the fetish and kink communities, in particular bondage. This has been going on since before I was born; if you look at the very first Wonder Woman comics they read like bondage stories. In my parents’ generation “detective comics” and “detective magazines” were quite popular, and for the most part they featured flimsy stories that served as little more than a setup to get a woman tied up. All of these, as well as the shorter scenes of bondage common to more “mainstream” work (kidnappings in soap operas, Snidely Whiplash tying Nell Fenwick to the train tracks for Dudley Do-Right to rescue, and so on) are part of a genre called “damsel in distress” situations, and those of us who identify as “born kinky” often talk about seeing these scenes on television when we were young, or reading them in books, as the moments when we knew there was something “different” with us. If advertising executives tell you that they weren’t trying to appeal to “damsel in distress” fans if they include a scene of someone getting tied up in a commercial or show, then they are lying. Advertisers are as aware of that demographic as they are of exactly how short they can make a woman’s skirt before the religious right cries foul a little too loudly for comfort.
I can recall at least one instance of Erin Esurance being bound in an Esurance-produced commercial, and I’m sure there were many more. To look at a more contemporary figure, anyone who looks at Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials and doesn’t see the influence of Bettie Page on Flo’s look needs an eye exam. About a year ago there was a television commercial where Flo used what was clearly a spanking paddle — complete with close-ups of it — to help knock a box off of a high shelf. There is no way that commercial wasn’t a wink of the eye to Flo’s fans in the kink community. They might as well have flashed “FANSERVICE” across the screen in big letters throughout that commercial.
Getting back to Erin Esurance, there are two big points to be made about why Esurance’s decision to stop using her because of adult fan-based work is completely illogical. First of all, the idea that people will suddenly stop making fan-based works using Erin Esurance because Esurance retired the character is absurd. If anything there will probably be a glut of that work these next few weeks out of sheer petulance for Esurance’s actions. I’m not sure if Erin Esurance ever reached an “iconic” level of fame, but even today there are bondage videos being made where the rigger (the person doing the tying) dresses up like Snidely Whiplash, from the top hat all the way down to the handlebar mustache. Just because you stop using the character in your advertising doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to make fanart or fanfic of that character, especially when that character is so well-suited to certain kinds of “adult” situations.
More importantly, I get the feeling that this is supposed to set some kind of precedent, a “shot across the bow” to people who make fan-based works of popular characters, that if so much adult-based work is made then the characters will be retired or killed off or what have you. Not only is that highly unlikely to be effective, but it also lends itself to potential misuse. Let’s say there’s a group of people sick and tired of the Coca-Cola polar bears. What if that group were to get out their sketchpads and open Word, create a whole lot of lurid drawings and stories about the bears, and post them all over the Internet? Would Coca-Cola then be obliged to stop using the polar bears in their advertising just because some people had put an adult spin on them? (Before you ask if anyone’s made adult drawings of the polar bears: Rule 34.)
I really don’t understand Esurance’s line of logic here. They created a character who sold their product through sex, and now they’re pulling the character because people saw her in a sexual way. If past experience is any indicator, retiring Erin Esurance will have negligible impact on fans creating derivative works based off the character, and it’s not like people will forget she was a character for Esurance because the company’s name is part of hers. If they think people would honestly believe that adult artwork of Erin Esurance was sponsored or sanctioned or produced by the company then they may be underestimating the intelligence of the American public, as laughable as that sounds. If nothing else the news of this decision will probably just draw more attention to the adult-themed Erin Esurance art out there, which sounds like the last thing Esurance wants out of all this.
Erin Esurance may be “retired” in her makers’ eyes, but she will continue to live on through fan-based work — adult or otherwise — long after Esurance is out of business, and probably long after the Internet’s been outmoded and replaced with something else. The principles of Rule 34 were in place long before Erin Esurance donned her first skin-tight latex catsuit, and they’ll remain true long after we’re all gone.