Like many Americans, I picked up the March 2016 Playboy looking forward to their new design without nudes. While a woman glared at me from a bench after she saw the magazine title, I took great amount of joy from being able to flip through the mag without first breaking a child-proof plastic wrap (which, c’mon, why has no one cashed in on the obvious condom jokes to be made here?), unfold the centerfold in public, then go home to finish the articles.
And for the first time, that was completely true. I read Playboy “for the articles.”
While nothing can match their long-form articles and essays during the Seventies, Playboy is trying desperately to get back to the halcyon they once enjoyed. Founder Hugh Hefner has placed his Beverly Hills mansion on the block (with one caveat – the purchaser has to let him live there), the nudes are gone, the Playboy financial portfolio has been thinned out, merchandising has been cut back, and Hefner’s son, Cooper, has been named Brand Ambassador to utilize the Hefner name with a youthful appearance.
A recurring complaint has been streaming from the Bunny Mansion – Hugh Hefner is old. And the coterie of women around him aren’t feeling it. Carla Howe has said, “Most of the time all he wants is to play chess with his friends and watch old films. He almost never leaves home and refuses to change anything in the mansion. The whole place feels like it’s stuck in the 1980’s” and, what’s worse, “Hef is so frail he goes everywhere with a group of nurses.” For a brand built on youth, beauty, and energy, Playboy has increasingly reflected the ideals of Hugh Hefner which are now consuming him. Cue brand redevelopment.
The Playboy Brand
This isn’t the first time Playboy has had an overhaul of the brand. As Susan Gunelius, author of Building Brand Value the Playboy Way (2009) has written, after separating from his first wife,
Hefner fed the world’s insatiable appetites by appearing in public more often, partying at night, and showing people how wonderful the Playboy lifestyle could be… In the 1950s, the Playboy lifestyle was alive and well, not just for Hugh Hefner, but also for the people who worked for him. Nowhere was the Playboy lifestyle more fully advocated than within the walls of the Playboy offices in Chicago. With the ultimate brand champion setting the example, employees were quick to adapt the lifestyle as well, making them strong brand ambassadors and thereby attaining every brand manager’s ultimate goal of developing internal brand advocates who worked tirelessly to defend the brand, praise the brand, and grow the brand. There are few things more influential than employee brand advocates.
But as Gunelius points out, Hefner’s “primary goal [was] publishing a literary magazine for young men,” a far cry from the excess and gaspy, airbrushed, gauzy Playboy became known for over the last three decades. Reclaiming their position in culture is the new goal, but it’s a long climb back to the top.
In 1984, Christie Hefner, Hugh’s daughter, was named Chief Operating Officer after diminishing readership, numerous personal issues in Hugh’s life which had begun to distract him from publishing and the bottom line, and the failure of several business ventures that Hugh had made, including the Playboy Clubs and a gaming effort that failed spectacularly in America but whose London branch helped mask just how much financial ruin was on the horizon.
Over the next decade, Christie was promoted to Chief Executive and assumed all of her father’s duties except the titular Editor-in-Chief which he continues to hold to the present. Christie shuttered the Playboy Clubs to expand the company into hardcore pornographic products, licensing, and media extensions like Play Television and Spice TV, Playboy.com and pay-per-view entertainment. Where her father sought to create high-brow decadence and cater toward refined sensibility, Christie “pornified” the company into what it represents in contemporary culture, defending all accusations of misogyny and destruction of morality with the passive explanation that she was, after all, a woman.
In 2008, Christie resigned at the insistence of the board and even, it was rumored, at the request of her father. Readership of the magazine under the guidance of her father had once reached 5.6 million in 1975. When she resigned, it had fallen to 800,000.
The decline in readership has been attributed to many factors, especially the availability of free pornography on the Internet. But things had been bad for a long time. Magazines like Raunch, Playgirl, Larry Flynt’s Hustler and Robert Guccione’s Penthouse began replicating Playboy’s success in the 1970’s, regularly pushing the limits of publishing. These magazines flourished and eroded at Playboy by taking “the low road.” Instead of aspiring to show the human form in tasteful, artistic ways, these magazines took pride in showing naked bodies without apology. Larry Flynt, for instance, claimed that he was the first publisher of “the full bush.”
By the 1990’s and 2000’s, tamer men’s magazines like Maxim, Stuff, and FHM continued to take away from Playboy’s readership because their magazines were sold over the counter, without cellophane wrap to protect content from minors. Their centerfolds were provocative, but without nudity, emulating Playboy’s original mindset and style, while simultaneously entertaining a robust male appetite for bawdy humor, double entendres, cultural commentary, interviews with sports figures, and the highlighting of technological and automotive innovation. In 2008, Playboy began several rounds of layoffs and reconsidered the future of the future of the brand. Nothing was considered too drastic. For many, the dying gasps were already evident during the quasi-popular series The Girls Next Door on E! where a vaguely present Hefner shuttled “his girls” around the country for lackluster public appearances.
Except that’s not exactly how it happened.
When his daughter, Christie, oversaw the bunny, Playboy Enterprises became a publicly traded company. Hefner held a considerable share, having made a sizable fortune when he oversaw the company and consistently making a profit since he stepped down. But with the company in trouble, investment markets in trouble, and investors putting their money towards interests other than a relic magazine, Hefner quietly began asking what it take to get his company back.
The various websites of Playboy Enterprises, Inc. generated 44% of the company’s revenue in 2009. Advertising, which had created the original Playboy boom, had declined from 765 pages in 2000 to just 311 in 2009, according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Average circulation in that same period dropped from 2.02 million to roughly one million, both figures down from the 5.6 million of 1975. The major part of 2009’s revenue came from licensing, accounting for some $21 million together with $9.9 million from television properties (including The Girls Next Door) and a notable but comparatively small $1.6 million from the magazine itself. Still, according to Andrew Vanacore of The Washington Times, “Factoring in corporate overhead, costs related to layoffs and write-downs on the value of its assets, Playboy reported a net loss of $51.3 million in 2009.” In 1999, the company’s stock was valued at $32 a share. In 2009, it floated around $2.30 a share. When Hefner began signaling he would be interested in taking control back, stock prices “jumped” to $5.55 a share, indicating a confidence in Hefner’s ability to restore his company to its former glory. In January of 2011, it was announced that after a series of negotiations, Hefner would buy the remaining shares at a premium of $6.15, outbidding competitors who sought to take over the strong name recognition the company had held on to since his retirement. Ultimately, as Robert Channick of The Los Angeles Times pointed out, “With nearly 70 percent of the Class A voting stock, Hefner’s controlling interest — and beefed-up offer — ultimately swayed the board.” After a $207.3 million buyout, “The Hef” had returned to the throne.
A New Company
Marc Bell, CEO of Penthouse, was one of those competitors Hefner outbid. During the 2010 negotiations, Bell stated that he felt the future of Playboy was “on the digital side” and that Playboy “needs to be run like a 21st century company.” Bell had previously bought Penthouse properties when they were going through bankruptcy proceedings in 2003, including FriendFinder which runs adult and dating websites, produces adult materials and videos, and licenses pornographic content. It seems obvious where Bell would have taken the company – more nudity, more sex, more skin, more licensing. All areas where Playboy has consistently failed to achieve their former potential. In a market racing for novel ways to accentuate the naked body, Playboy has been unable get traction. Since the buyout by Hefner, Playboy has tried to rebrand itself no less than three times, each time coming inevitably closer to where they now find themselves: a magazine that pioneered the naked body no longer wants to show the naked body.
“That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive to Ravi Somaya of The New York Times. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
Bob Guccione Jr., founder of Spin magazine and whose father, Robert Guccione, started Penthouse magazine to compete with Playboy in 1965, says he feels Playboy should go in a different direction by returning to it’s roots as an art, literature, and lifestyle magazine and jettisoning the porny feel of the magazine his daughter oversaw. “It has to be modernized,” Guccione said, and “should acknowledge the modern woman who is more equal, more independent and not just interested in getting married – and by the way, far more sexy and interesting” than the women Hefner showcased in the Sixties and Seventies.
With the release of their March 2016 issue, it appears Playboy will manage to do that very thing. Centerfold Dree Hemingway is evidence of that. Hemingway is, of course, the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and the daughter of actress, writer, poet, and yoga guru Mariel Hemingway. It is a symbolic message to old and new readers alike of where Playboy intends to go, a signal of their intent.
In another interview with CNNMoney, the magazine’s CEO, Scott Flanders, said that there were several meetings leading to the relaunch of the magazine. However, the biggest hurdles had nothing to do with nudity. In fact, when it was suggested that the magazine no longer publish nude photos,”His comment was, ‘This is what I always intended Playboy magazine to look like.'”
The editorial board collectively sighed. Hefner was most resistant to getting rid of the cartoons, funnily enough, because he had once aspired to be a cartoonist. Biographer Steven Watts noted several similarities between Hefner and Walt Disney in his respective compendiums of the men, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (2001) and Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2009). While the two men took very different avenues, they each felt a strong affinity for art and the ability of cartoons to communicate a message. Eventually, Hefner acquiesced.
Now, Flanders says, the magazine has no interest in competing with derivatives like Maxim, or even Penthouse. The overhaul and revitalization of the brand aims to bring Playboy to the same league as Vanity Fair. The new move, he says, has created a strong interest in advertisers who long since abandoned the magazine and new, immediate revenue from the opportunity of new distribution channels. “You’re going to see a Detroit auto manufacturer,” said Flanders of automaker Dodge, “In Playboy magazine for the first time in 20 years.”
But, the change doesn’t come without a few disappointed subscribers. “A couple hundred cancellations” came in after the magazine announced they would discontinue publishing nudes last year. But, he says, the magazine is “Optimistic that we’ll hold on to most of our fans. I think in today’s world it’s sort of unrealistic to think that anyone’s subscribing to Playboy magazine because they can’t find nudity anywhere else,” he said. “That would be a rather un-creative subscriber.”