Shell Oil Co. has determined “Playboy” and “Penthouse” no longer are pornography, but instead are “adult sophisticates,” according to a company statement.

The issue arose when the Florida Family Association contacted Shell about the sale of such explicit magazines at convenience stores owned by Circle K in southeastern parts of the United States.

David Caton, executive director of the pro-family organization, said his group asked Shell to require Shell-branded Circle K Stores to stop selling the pornography, as it has done in the past with other retailers.

The request, Caton told WND, has been made to more than a dozen major oil companies supplying fuel to nearly 150,000 outlets in the United States. And until now, Caton said, there has been virtually a 100 percent positive response.

“However, Shell Oil Company has decided instead to change their definition of pornography, unlike all other major oil companies, to exclude Penthouse and Playboy magazines which are sold by Circle K Stores,” he said.

The confirmation came in an e-mail from Otto O. Meyers III, a Shell executive, who told the Florida Family Association those stores selling “Penthouse” are not selling pornography.

“In regard to your inquiry about specific Circle K locations, our investigation has concluded that these stores are not selling pornography as one would think the general public defines it, but rather ‘adult sophisticate’ magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse,” Meyers wrote.

Caton said that puts Shell in a crowd of one among companies who “no longer consider the hardcore content of Penthouse and explicit nudity in Playboy to be pornographic. No other major oil company has taken this position.”

A statement from the company in response to WND’s questions denied there was any policy change.

“Shell [prohibits] the sale of sexually explicit magazines, including adult sophisticates, at Shell stations that we own in the United States,” said the statement from Anne Peebles, of the company’s U.S. Media Center.

“At sites that are owned and operated by third party, independent wholesalers who are contractually allowed to display the Shell brand, we discourage the sale of offensive material, including pornography.”

She noted the fueling component bears the Shell brand name at several sites questioned by the Florida Family Association. “However, the convenience component of the sites are owned, operated and branded by Circle K, one of our wholesalers. … We have been [in] contact with Circle K on this issue and have shared the community’s concerns with them.”

Caton said the new policy by Shell probably had been influenced by Circle K Store’s recent purchase of 240 Shell branded retail locations.

The stores involved do not include every Circle K nationwide, but do include those in Baton Rouge, Denver, Memphis, Orlando, Tampa and southwest Florida, officials said.

Other major oil companies are aggressive in the contracts they require for use of their brand name, and in fact, several have been known to out out and “chop down signs” if a retail location violates its contractual agreement and sells pornography on location, Caton said.

“Prior to this mass accumulation of Shell-branded stations, Shell … prohibited any independent retailer from selling or allow the sale of pornography under a Shell sign,” Caton said.

“Shell has clearly broken with 100 percent unanimous position among major oil companies [to ban pornography],” Caton said.

He said he was additionally concerned by Meyers’ e-mail, which put in bold-face type the words, “general public,” as if indicating that the Florida Family Association’s perception of “Playboy” and “Penthouse” as pornography was somehow as isolated opinion.

“This appears to imply that people who consider Penthouse to be porn are not considered by Shell to be part of the general public,” he said.

“We are concerned. At this point it appears Shell is more persuaded, they are more influenced by the money than they are the public image [of having pornography sold under their brand name],” Caton said.

Meyers’ e-mail also confirmed that the supply agreements allow the sale of such items “are within the reasonable discretion [of the retailer], as opposed to being prohibited only if they are ‘unacceptable under local community standards.'”

“Certainly standards and policies of any company will evolve and change over time; however, it remains our position that if we deem the magazines to be offensive or objectionable to the general public, we will demand that appropriate steps be taken,” he said.

He said all those decisions will be determined using a “balance” between “the integrity and reputation of the brand” against the “operational control issues” involved.

He said since the “adult sophisticates” now being sold are behind counters, “we do not plan to pursue this issue further.”

Caton’s organization has launched an e-mail campaign allowing concerned consumers to let Shell know of their feelings.

“The e-mail calls on Shell Oil Company to follow the standards and definitions established and enforced by all other major oil companies regarding the sale of pornographic materials by strictly prohibiting the sale of Playboy, Penthouse and other magazines that feature full nudity and explicit sexual conduct at all Shell branded stations including Circle K Stores,” Caton said.

The Florida Family Association previously has had positive responses from Amoco, Chevron, BP, Citgo, ConocoPhillips, Mobil, Murphy, Sunoco, and Texaco in its requests to ban pornography. An estimated 35,000 7-Eleven stores also have cooperated, as have another 20,000 locations run by Albertsons, Cumberland Farms, Eckerd Drugs, Farm Stores, Kash n Karry, Swifty mart, Tom Thumb and other companies.

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