Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner and Anna Berglund share a front row center box in a capacity crowd at the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 12, 2010. Reed Saxon AP
Last month, Cory Jones, a top editor at Playboy, went to see its founder, Hugh Hefner, at the Playboy Mansion.
In a wood-paneled dining room, with Picasso and de Kooning prints on the walls, Jones nervously presented a radical suggestion: THE magazine, a pioneer of the revolution that helped take sex in America from furtive to ubiquitous, should stop publishing images of naked women.
Hefner, 89, but still listed as editor-in-chief, agreed. As part of a redesign that will be unveiled in March, the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.
Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
For a generation of American men, reading Playboy was a cultural rite, an illicit thrill consumed by flashlight. Now every teenage boy has an Internet-connected phone instead. Pornographic magazines, even those as storied as Playboy, have lost their shock value, their commercial value and their cultural relevance.
Playboy’s circulation has dropped from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 now, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Many of the magazines that followed it have disappeared. Though detailed figures are not kept for adult magazines, many of those that remain exist in severely diminished form, available mostly in specialist stores. Penthouse, perhaps the most famous Playboy competitor, responded to the threat from digital pornography by turning even more explicit. It never recovered.
Previous efforts to revamp Playboy, as recently as three years ago, have never quite stuck. And those who have accused it of exploiting women are unlikely to be assuaged by a modest cover-up. But, according to its own research, Playboy’s logo is one of the most recognizable in the world, along with those of Apple and Nike. This time, as the magazine seeks to compete with startups like Vice, Flanders said, it sought to answer a key question: “If you take nudity out, what’s left?”
It is difficult, in a media market that has been so fragmented by the Web, to imagine the scope of Playboy’s influence at its peak. A judge once ruled that denying blind people a Braille version of it violated their First Amendment rights. It published stories by Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami among others, and its interviews have included Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter, who admitted that he had lusted in his heart for women other than his wife. Madonna, Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell appeared in the magazine at the peak of their fame. Its best-selling issue, November 1972, sold more than 7 million copies.
Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention – Gloria Steinem, the pioneering feminist, went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Hefner’s spinoff clubs to write an exposé for Show Magazine in 1963.
When Hefner created the magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its debut cover in 1953, he did so to please himself. “If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,” he said in his first editor’s letter. “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex …” He did not put a date on the cover of the first issue, in case Playboy did not make it to a second.
Hefner “just revolutionized the whole direction of how we live, of our lifestyles and the kind of sex you might have in America, said Dian Hanson, author of a six-volume history of men’s magazines and an editor for Taschen. “But taking the nudity out of Playboy is going to leave what?”
The latest redesign, 62 years later, is more pragmatic. The magazine had already made some content safe for work, Flanders said, in order to be allowed on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, vital sources of Web traffic.
In August last year, its website dispensed with nudity. As a result, Playboy executives said, the average age of its reader dropped from 47 to just over 30, and its Web traffic jumped to about 16 million from about 4 million unique users per month.
The magazine will adopt a cleaner, more modern style, said Jones, who as chief content officer also oversees its website. There will still be a Playmate of the Month, but the pictures will be “PG-13” and less produced – more like the racier sections of Instagram. “A little more accessible, a little more intimate,” he said. It is not yet decided whether there will still be a centerfold.
Its sex columnist, Jones said, will be a “sex-positive female,” writing enthusiastically about sex. And Playboy will continue its tradition of investigative journalism, in-depth interviews and fiction. The target audience, Flanders said, is young men who live in cities. “The difference between us and Vice,” he said, “is that we’re going after the guy with a job.”
Some of the moves, like expanded coverage of liquor, are partly commercial, Flanders admitted; the magazine must please its core advertisers. And all the changes have been tested in focus groups with an eye toward attracting millennials – people ages 18 to 30-something, highly coveted by publishers. The magazine will feature visual artists, with their work dotted through the pages, in part because research revealed that younger people are drawn to art.
The company now makes most of its money from licensing its ubiquitous brand and logo across the world – 40 percent of that business is in China even though the magazine is not available there – for bath products, fragrances, clothing, liquor and jewelry among other merchandise. Nudity in the magazine risks complaints from shoppers, and diminished distribution.
Playboy, which had gone public in 1971, was taken private again in 2011 by 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 more than 60 percent. Hefner owns about 30 percent (some shares are held by Playboy management).
The magazine is profitable if money from licensed editions around the world is taken into account, Flanders said, but the U.S. edition loses about $3 million a year. He sees it, he said, as a marketing expense. “It is our Fifth Avenue storefront,” he said.
Flanders and Jones feel that the magazine remains relevant, not least because the world has gradually adopted Hefner’s libertarian views on a variety of social issues. Asked whether Hefner’s views on women were the exception to that rule, Flanders responded that Hefner had “always celebrated the beauty of the female figure.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Jones said of the decision to dispense with nudity, “12-year-old me is very disappointed in current me. But it’s the right thing to do.”