It is hard to imagine that Playboy would enjoy its modern-day success had it stuck with the name founder Hugh Hefner chose for it, Stag Party. Having changed the original buck logo into a rabbit, the first issue of Playboy hit newsstands in 1953. In an open letter to readers of that issue, Hefner promised men “between the ages of 18 and 80” that Playboy would serve them a steady diet of “humor, sophistication and spice.” He added that Playboy was sure to become “a very special favorite.”
Of course, there were two more reasons of fleshy prominence per issue upon which Playboy pinned its hopes. Despite having launched Ian Flemming’s James Bond and getting President Jimmy Carter to admit to having “lusted in his heart,” Playboy has always been known for its centerfolds; the first having been Marilyn Monroe.
In fact, Playboy’s identity as a nudie mag is so strong that on its corporate FAQ site, the brand tenders what may be the most rhetorical question in modern publishing: “Does anyone really read Playboy for the articles?” Their answer: “The only people who can rightfully claim [this] are the thousands of blind readers who peruse our Braille edition, which has been distributed by the Library of Congress since 1970.”
Playboy’s rabbit head, designed by Art Paul in “all of a half an hour” is probably one of the most identifiable brand logos in the world. Claiming 15 million readers worldwide, with an Internet presence, licensing deals and satellite and cable channels (both Playboy and Spice) some incarnation of Playboy is available to the vast majority of
horny sophisticated men worldwide.
However, parties end and the sun rises. In 1985 the bachelor woke with a hangover, unshaven and overweight; gracelessly graying in an id-less era. As if it were the next much-publicized event-euphemism of Playboy’s life span, Hugh Hefner suffered a stroke. Not long after this, Hefner’s daughter Christie took over as CEO. Another euphemistic event, Ms. Hefner’s arrival seemed to be the end of the old hedonistic Playboy and the beginning of sober, siliconed franchise expansion.
An unofficial mission statement from the Lady Hefner’s Playboy reads: “To maintain Playboy enterprises…with many windows of opportunity to expand the Playboy franchise and develop other related entertainment franchise globally by leveraging Playboy’s strengths of [content creation], publishing, brand management, and marketing.” That document then goes on to discuss what Playboy intends to do in the (rapidly approaching) event of Hef’s death.
Unfortunately, being seen working hard at anything, including brand building, doesn’t mesh well with the leisurely lifestyle Playboy champions. The Playboy life is that of the established man of experienced poise, comfortable in his leathery wrinkles and white chest hair. The Playboy man thumbs his nose at the prematurely ejaculated Maxim man-boy and his sophomoric loo humor. Yet, in a corporate statement, Playboy listed Maxim repeatedly as its primary competitor, speaking cantankerously of Maxim’s use of “partial” nudity, as if the word “partial” itself was an affront to taste. The geriatric seizure in the report’s words was one of a flummoxed curmudgeon, suddenly considering that little red sports car, a ponytail, an earring, or all three.
In America, society’s tolerance of both Playboy playmates going on to “legitimate” -- and clothed -- entertainment careers within the mainstream and established public figures becoming centerfolds, attests to the perception of the Playboy brand as no longer on the cusp of deviancy. Playboy’s “Women of…” searches, such as its most recent quests for the “Women of Starbucks” and the “Women of Enron,” are now received with the sort of boys-will-be-boys good humor not associated with more lewd publications such as Larry Flynt’s infamously raunchy Hustler. And, though iconic as ever, Playboy’s circulation numbers have more than halved since the 1970s; a majority of its revenues now come from sources other than the magazine.
The truth of the matter is that Hef will die, sooner rather than later, and it has been underestimated how much he and the brand are intertwined. Much of the brand’s success is because Hefner worked so hard to build it; to live it. It is hard to imagine the public getting behind another man (his sons have been proposed) in a silk bathrobe with seven naked women at his side. Playboy is loved because Hef is loved. Unlike many other magazines, Playboy was taken seriously because Hefner sincerely mortgaged himself to the lifestyle, telling us that he’d live this way whether he had money or not. An assigned interloper in rabbit slippers will never capture the personality at the heart of the brand. And like so many Playboy readers already know, real is better than implanted.
Playboy’s answer may be to turn to parts of the world where its history is not so closely anchored to pornography, publishing or, most importantly, Hef. In February 2003, the Far Eastern Economic Review named Playboy the most popular brand in China. Playboy claims to have over 700 points of sale there retailing both men’s and women’s clothing.
The irony is that Playboy at 50 is what the brand played at being in 1953. Instead of the 23-year-old frat boy dressed gawkily in a silk robe feigning literate sophistication before a poster of Hef on the dorm-room wall, Playboy today is Hef. It is, well, a playboy. Yet, as a new editor of the magazine comes in promising competitive-edge change, it seems as if Playboy is attempting to forget its true self and act the lad that it once so dreadfully pretended not to be.
So, at 50, does Playboy have the face it deserves? Yes, probably. Though, in a twist of further irony, Orwell himself didn't live to see 50.