Selling sex in a plain vanilla world
While the sex toy industry has seen much more acceptance in the past two years, it still has a way to go before it's considered an everyday part of mainstream culture.
Securing shelf space in retail stores isn't the herculean challenge it once was, but the makers of these adult novelties have to walk a fine line to ensure their products are identifiable, but not something that will cause a backlash among conservative shoppers.
"We've always spoken about the products in a very sophisticated manner," says Molly Murphy, director of sales and marketing at sex toy manufacturer Jimmyjane. "In the past, there has been a tendency to look at these products and it was described in either a little scary fashion—like a piece of anatomy—or something real playful—almost joke-like—such as a butterfly or a rabbit or whatnot. We speak to it for what it is—using sophistication in both product design and language."
(Read more: Adult Entertainment Expo 2014)
Sex toys are now on the shelves of leading retailers, including Wal-Mart, Rite Aid and Brookstone. But getting them there wasn't easy. In many ways, the industry has Trojan to thank for opening the door.
Condoms were one thing. Convincing stores to put vibrators on shelves took a little more doing. To make the argument, Trojan used data from the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University showing that half of Americans have used a vibrator, and some 94 percent agreed that a vibrator makes it easier for women to reach orgasm.
"There was a clear need and an opportunity, which our partners understood and appreciated," says Bruce Weiss, vice president of marketing at Trojan. "Once we established the need, we worked to make sure the product and packaging was tasteful and approachable, and placed in the sexual health aisle where people would expect to find it to make shoppers and retailers feel as comfortable as possible."
Retailers still downplay the idea that they sell vibrators in stores—even those like Brookstone which displays products from Lelo and other manufacturers in catalogs. They prefer the term "massager"—but note that adult products fit in with their missions.
"Brookstone's core massage positioning is stress relief, pain relief and muscle recovery," says Steve Schwartz, vice president of merchandising and product development at Brookstone. "The majority of our massage products improve circulation to aid muscle recovery. ... A small and subtle segment (from our perspective) within the massage category is personal massage."
(Read more: Adult toymakers lust for 'Fifty Shades' movie)
Packaging, of course, is a key component of marketing these products. Whereas many sex toys in adult stores are packaged in explicit boxes, those destined for mainstream outlets rarely show the product—and never show it on the front cover. The packages are often illustrated with flowing patterns and terms like "personal massager" or "pleasure object."
Slight tweaks to the language, in fact, can be big steps. Adult novelty company OhMiBod recently released its new Lovelife line of products in Brookstone. Rather than directly labeling what the toys are, it uses names like "Adventure," "Cuddle" and "Dream."
Marketing the products, meanwhile, comes with challenges of its own – ones that have less to do with tastefulness and more to do with changing the thinking of television networks.
"Advertising is one area I'm particularly annoyed with," says Suki Dunham, founder of OhMiBod, which runs commercials for its products in late-night hours. "There's an enormous hypocrisy in advertising. Take Viagra, for example. It's made by a big pharmaceutical company and they advertise it during prime time, but I can't advertise a vibrator."
Sex, of course, sells—but adult toy manufacturers note that in marketing their products, that's a tool they're not really allowed to use.
"So many brands use sex appeal to market their product, but we have to walk a fine line of being sexy without being too explicit," says Murphy. "You can only be playful and fun—and hint at the sexiness of it."
The Federal Communications Commission is less clear on this, though. Officials declined to comment for this story, but pointed to the agency's guidelines on what constitutes indecency on the airwaves and is restricted to certain hours —specifically "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities."
There does seem to be leeway for the individual broadcasters to allow the commercials if they wish, though, which provides a foot in the door for sex toy manufacturers who can create tasteful commercials.
"Unless a broadcast advertisement is found to be in violation of a specific law or rule, the government cannot take action against it," the commission notes in one of its guides for the public.
"However, if you believe that an advertisement is offensive because of the nature of the item advertised, the scheduling of the announcement, or the manner in which the message is presented, you should consider addressing your complaint directly to the station or network involved, providing the date and time of the broadcast and the product or advertiser in question."
There is optimism among sex toy manufacturers, though, that consumers and retailers will continue to become more accepting of adult novelties—and that select products will increasingly not be limited to seedy adult bookstores.
Toys have been a growth segment in the adult industry for several years now, with sales topping $15 billion. But the companies say they're capable of much more.
"We recall how lingerie was perceived in the '70s, and look at how prevalent that is today," said Steve Thomson, global marketing manager at Lelo.
—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com.