While Playboy isn’t the only magazine brand to see its readership decline, its circulation is a mere shadow of what it once was, sliding from more than 7 million in 1972 to just over 800,000 today. Advertising dollars are way down. The brand does have other channels of income from its clubs, licensing and websites, but it appears to be a brand in search of lost relevancy.
Whether you believe that the Playboy brand stands for sexual freedom or objectification of women, there’s no doubt it was once an edgy brand. In 1953 it burst on the scene with an inaugural issue featuring nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. In today’s world, nude photos of a celebrity actress may seem commonplace, but in 1953, it was a bombshell that instantly put Playboy on the map. The Playboy brand was a perfect fit for the growing sexual revolution, and by the 1970s it was estimated that one in four college men were subscribers.
Yet, the early 70s was the peak of their circulation growth. And, although 40 years of centerfolds and new-starlet-bares-all pictorials have followed, not to mention many high-quality articles and interviews that supposedly legitimize the publication as more than a skin magazine, Playboy’s publisher has elected to eliminate totally nude women from its pages beginning next year.
Playboy says that easily accessible porn on the Internet has led them to this substantial change in content. No one would argue there isn’t plenty of it. But really, other magazines have long been far more risqué, or pornographic, depending upon your point of view. In the 1970s, Penthouse and Hustler quickly upped the ante on Playboy, which ultimately elected not to follow, and it has remained less explicit over the years.
Throughout its journey as a magazine brand, however, a key strategic element of the Playboy brand has been sophistication. It’s not a random connection. The word “playboy” has been around much longer than you might imagine. In 1828, the Oxford Dictionary defined the term as “a person with money who is out to enjoy himself.” The term has evolved but still carries many of the same connotations. Wikipedia now defines it as a wealthy man with ample time for leisure, who… appreciates the pleasures of the world, especially women.
That’s the aura of the Playboy brand in a nutshell—sophisticated hedonism with the cash and the time to pursue it. Sounds appealing, right? So this is Playboy’s big bet: The brand isn’t specifically about naked women, it’s about an aspirational lifestyle for men. Most of us can’t afford the time or the money, but we can buy a little bit of it with each issue.
I like the thinking. But I have to say, I don’t think it’s going to work. While Playboy has been busy selling the skin, other publications have been building brands around sophistication, style and portraying dashing gentlemen living enviable lives. GQ and Esquire are leading examples, but even FHM and Maxim have co-opted some of this space for younger men. And all of these publications have higher circulations than Playboy does right now.
I have managed to get this far without referring to the old joke of, “I only read Playboy for the articles.” But, in a sense, that may be all that Playboy has left. Playboy is at risk of having made itself irrelevant. Where it once was on the leading edge of social change, with a charismatic leader in Hugh Hefner, it is now just somewhere in a cluster of men’s lifestyle publication brands.
To be fair, Playboy is claiming that when they eliminated nudity from their website last year (to comply with Facebook restrictions, among others) web traffic increased from 4 million to 16 million unique viewers per month, and the average age of those readers fell from 47 to 30 years old. Sustaining that kind of traffic and shift in demographics could be the path to sustaining the brand as a publication. I would love to see the stats, however, on how many of those 30-year-olds surfing the Playboy website have a subscription to any magazine at all, a problem that nearly all publications have been dealing with since Al Gore invented the Internet.
So, will the rebranding of Playboy into Playboy Lite be a hit? Sure, sometimes less in more. But other times, less is just less.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.