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Penthouse - hard times
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Penthouse - hard times

hard times
by Abram Sauer
July 23, 2007

Those outside of the Cialis target demographic probably only remember Penthouse as a XXX-hard-core magazine. But with a new editor from GQ, pin-ups of (not naked) celebs like Tila Tequila, and hipper-than-thou photographers, Penthouse is looking to win back a place in its readers, um, hearts.

Founded in 1965 in the UK, Penthouse was in the US by ’69. (Get it?! 69?! ;P) By the 1980s it was, alongside Hustler and Playboy, one of the largest “nudie” magazine brands in the world. Its 1984 issue featuring Vanessa Williams is reputed to be the second largest selling issue of any magazine ever.


Considered mild in its company, Penthouse, until the late 90s, was largely mellow in terms of sexual explicitness. And, like Playboy and Hustler, it had its own eccentric, overboard leader, Bob Guccione.

Throughout its history, Penthouse struggled against advocacy groups, censorship, and government, blah blah blah—didn’t they all? (Though in one, chocolatey-rich bit of irony, in 1996 sales of the magazine were banned in one of its largest markets, military bases, by—wait for it—President Clinton.)

In 2003 the magazine was spent and declared bankruptcy. It’s golden (shower) days gone, Penthouse was restructured and re-launched a couple years later featuring only “tasteful” full nudity. Today there are at least 11 international editions and the magazine claims a circulation somewhere south of 350,000.

Penthouse has dallied with a re-brand before. In the late 90s, the UK version was changed to PH.UK, featuring more art and thought pieces targeting a more refined “adult.” The re-launch was PH.UKed.

Penthouse’s obvious strength is that it’s more than just wank fuel; it’s a brand with firm bona fides, or name recognition. So the magazine needs to ask itself, “Which segment of the male population do we appeal to?” There are a lot of options and “guys who like nude women” isn’t one of them.

In 2005 indie rock gods Weezer shot the video for one of the summer’s most popular songs, “Beverly Hills,” on the Playboy Mansion grounds. And while the Playboy Mansion is a little bit more iconic than the Penthouse Mansion (which was sold off), this line of thinking is more what Penthouse should be shooting for; reinforce your iconic status by teaming up with icons from another industry. Penthouse’s current editorial seems to have started to reflect this, featuring a lot of game and film reviews and some “ranting.” Though it still comes off as a little all over the place and too “Maxim.”

On the pornography side, Penthouse would be best served studying groups like Burning Angel and the Suicide Girls. Sexy has changed: One of the hottest (most mainstream) movies of the summer, Transformers, stars Megan Fox, who has said that she has “…my boyfriend Brian’s name tattooed next to my pie.” And the hottest female movie star (maybe on the planet), Angelina Jolie, used to wear a vile of blood and play with knives. What this means is not just that blondes-with-racks aren’t sexy anymore but that the extremes, the boundaries, are being driven outward. For Penthouse this means more is acceptable than has been in years. And I’m not just talking about “pie.”

The bad news is that this increase in acceptability has created a fragmented market that’s harder to pin down, which results in magazines being forced to become more and more niche-focused in order to retain subscribers. And by no means is this just a media phenomenon. The good news is that consumers, after spending years without their wants being totally served, are not really yet settled into their niche segments. So they are very willing to be brand loyal to whomever can serve those wants, a (re-)brand builder’s dream.

A good magazine for Penthouse to study would be Vice. A strong brand, Vice has carved out a highly brand-loyal niche by being unapologetically true to that niche’s sensibility; yet, at the same time it follows a classic magazine format, including the part about being beholden of advertisers. Penthouse’s hiring of hipster photog extraordinaire Terry Richardson shows that it may already have looked Vice’s way. It’s not hard to imagine Penthouse being popular with those who are unapologetically un-P.C., yet fairly mainstream—re-branding itself as a kind of lifestyle magazine such as GQ or Details, but for the date-rape-jokes-are-funny crowd. If Penthouse is to survive it must make itself a lifestyle magazine and fully embrace that lifestyle.

Outside of obvious competition from the Internet, Penthouse will always have a hard time as long as it is full of nudes and Washington, DC, full of prudes. Deliverers of high-end newsstand distribution numbers like Wal-Mart will continue to banish magazines like Penthouse to the porn store and bodega wall-racks. And has this article’s humble reader ever seen a porn magazine wall rack? It just may be the harshest possible environment known to man for brand recognition and brand differentiation.


Abram D. Sauer has written about brands and branding trends since 2001. Visit for more of his work on branding and product placement.

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Penthouse - hard times
 Penthouse has a chance to occupy a cooler niche than Playboy, which since partnering with the Palms casino has revealed its desire to be the Starbucks or Nike of the adult magazine category - - the ubiquitous behemoth. Penthouse can be the wilder, more edgy alternative. I know plenty of people in LA and elsewhere who would work whatever angle necessary to get onto the VIP list for the next Penthouse party. With Playboy going for the masses, Penthouse should target the really cool people. 
Mike Mirkil - July 20, 2007
 I agree in full. I personally have side project (magazine) I have been putting together that is just this, a artsy porn magazine targeted at everyone else. Those that do not like 34-23-34. We males all find other types of women sexy we just don't say it. Imagine an....can't say more sorry.adhder dot com. 
Jason E, marketing manager, adhder - July 23, 2007
 There isn't a place for Penthouse any longer, at least not as a magazine.

The Internet is full of everything from tasteful nudes to things no one should want to see two (or more) people do. The very demographic noted in this article has been turning to the Internet for game and music reviews for years. The very concept of a media printed on paper is seeming ever more old fashioned, as evidenced by the demise of rags such as FHM and Cargo.

If Penthouse has a chance next to the hip Playboy and the more relevant Maxim, it's with an online strategy. Take Slate or Salon as a model, add exclusive and sexy content, and look for ways to extend the brand into other directions than media (clothing, upscale lounges, personal hygiene products, etc.) 
Augie Ray - July 23, 2007
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