Behind the format change at Playboy

Playboy ends nudity in magazine pictorials 34 years after censorship by the Meese Commission imposed restrictions on public sales.


LOS ANGELES, Oct/ 13, 2015 – The earth spun off its axis and veered into the sun as Playboy Enterprises announced that it would no longer include nudity in Playboy Magazine beginning in March 2016. That action will mark the end of a 62-year era during which Hugh Hefner’s once-scandalous magazine dominated the discussion and imagery of sexuality for the modern American male.

Playboy’s decision was by no means entirely the work of the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner, now 89 and still serving as its editor-in-chief. According to CNBC,

Playboy, which had gone public in 1971, was taken private again in 2011 by Mr. Hefner with Rizvi Traverse Management, an investment firm founded by Suhail Rizvi, a publicity-shy Silicon Valley investor, who has interests in Twitter, Square and Snapchat among others. The firm now owns over 60 percent. Mr. Hefner owns about 30 percent (some shares are held by Playboy management).

In the end, this corporate decision seems less a bow to the ubiquitous nudity on the Internet and more of a business decision based on advertisers’ unwillingness to purchase ad pages in a magazine containing nudity. This, in turn, can in large part be attributed to the Meese Commission’s hamstringing of the magazine in the early 1980s, forcing each issue to be swathed in plastic wrap and kept off the mainstream magazine racks with its cover half-obscured by cardboard inserts.

Along with threatened advertiser boycotts and the labeling of a mainstream publication by government officials as pornography, with restraints imposed on its public sale, it was little wonder that advertisers fled and circulation dropped.

The magazine’s new look “will be unveiled next March,” according to CNBC, and “the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.”

In other words, women will still be featured in the magazine in provocative sexy poses, but without clear and explicit nudity. Playboy’s website actually eliminated nudity this year and saw its unique page visits increase and its age demographic skew significantly younger, beginning to attract the more youthful demographic that all media currently favors above all others.

It is expected that many more A-list actresses and social figures will now be willing to pose for Playboy and appear on its cover, if nudity is not required or involved.

Given the results the company has already seen on its website, the magazine’s ad sales are expected to soar as a result of the decision, and moving the magazine to magazine racks next to Vanity Fair and Esquire, where it always belonged, should help with public visibility and rack sales.

There is no question, however, that it is the end of an era for this venerable company that was on the cutting edge of social change during the second half of the 20th Century.

“I can think of no other magazine that has had as profound an effect on American society in the 20th century than Playboy,” said Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hefner, who has always embraced the dynamic of change, is apparently sanguine about these latest developments in his former empire. It may be passé to publicly acknowledge the enormous contributions to social change that Playboy is responsible for, but the overall lack of public recognition for these accomplishments from a society that takes many of those advances for granted in our own times is telling.

In the beginning and throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Playboy magazine only featured partial nudity in its pages, even in its iconic nude photograph of the legendary Marilyn Monroe. Some Playmates in the ’50s showed little more than their derrières, including famed Playmates Joanie Mattis and Joyce Nizzari.

The magazine didn’t show its playmates’ and models’ pubic hair until 1971, but even this move was in some ways a competitive reaction to the more explicit nudes displayed in raunchier magazines like Penthouse and Hustler.

While its titillating photographs spurred sales, however, the magazine has always been noted for the high quality of its writing, its incisive Playboy interviews, and its intensely serious journalism. The cliché that people only read Playboy for the articles was once a reliable comedic punchline. Now it looks as if that line will become more true than the great fiction that used to grace its pages.

Despite the company’s and the magazine’s lengthy track record of success over the years, the march of time began to take its toll. From its peak monthly circulation of 7 million copies in 1972 when the Baby Boom generation began to crest, Playboy’s circulation by 2015 had dropped to around 800,000 copies. That’s extremely good for most magazines today, but still a pale shadow of Playboy’s once trend-setting circulation numbers.

The increasingly obvious lack of ad pages and the revenue they generate has been an ongoing concern for the company for quite some time. To counter this trend, Playboy expanded its revenues into countries abroad like China and Brazil, hoping to gain profitability with Playboy-branded products like suits and beer and succeeding admirably.

But perhaps more galling, hamstrung advertising page sales seem to have had more to do with political pressure and politically correct hypocrisy than with the demise of Playboy as a serious magazine.

Indeed, the Russian Playboy is filled with American advertisers and corporations who refuse to take out ad pages in the flagship American Playboy. The Russian version actually more closely resembles Vanity Fair and Vogue, overflowing with ad pages from car companies and luxury brands. The contrast is not only apparent, it is disturbing.

This underlying bias towards Playboy has been a serious hindrance to the magazine and company for years, even as the sexual revolution moved to the Internet and rendered this kind of ongoing censorship essentially a moot point. To think that it hasn’t severely undermined the magazine’s revenue is like asking a comedian to tell his jokes in the closet and hope the audience will hear them.

What’s more remarkable is that a magazine long renowned for its historic First Amendment battles, its vigorous support for civil rights, and yes, for women’s rights as well would actually fall victim to a sustained and ultimately successful 34-year attack on its own First Amendment rights through restrictions of public sale and commerce under the rubric of being labeled pornography by a federal government commission.

Nonetheless, economic and other factors, miscalculations on the part of management and that sale of the company in the wake of the 2009 economic meltdown to Rizvi-Traverse−the ultimate results of which left founder Hugh Hefner as a substantial but still minority stakeholder−were all factors in the decision to reorganize Playboy as a brand.

Today, the magazine itself is seen as a loss leader, a showcase for the now privately held brand but one that needed shoring up with additional ad pages, more celebrity lay-outs, and better magazine rack placement. It was no longer seen as integral to the corporation’s profitability.

It is estimated the magazine today loses $3 million a year, while Playboy Enterprises is estimated to have made around $180 million in profits last year. The Playboy brand and bunny symbol remain among the top four recognized brands in the world, along with Coca Cola, Marlboro, and Apple.

A Playboy insider lamented the upcoming changes as clearly the end of an era, but also noted that “Playboy as a brand will emerge stronger as a result of this.” This insider went on to say that Playboy would continue to pursue the aesthetic of the “girl next door” in their featured Playmates, utilizing crowdsourcing and even Instagram to discover prospects, and promised that the lack of nudity will not mean a lack of sensuality.

That said, it is the end of an era for Playboy and for the American public. Playboy as a company and a brand will be stronger, and from a corporate point of view, and for advertisers, it all may make sense.

But on a grander scale, the current developments at Playboy constitute yet another psychic loss of American innocence. Ironically, after 62 years of official repression and opposition to Playboy by government entities, the pressures of commerce have exacted their toll and taken precedence over the grander view favoring the open expression of one’s conscience, political sensibility, and sexuality, views that made Hugh Hefner great and Playboy Magazine important.

As Playboy prepares for its official transition in March, it might be a good idea to hold on to those vintage Playboy Magazines hidden underneath the bed or somewhere up in the attic. They are about to become genuine collector’s items.

Rick Johnson covers national, political, and international news for CDN.

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