Playboy poised to cover up

As part of a redesign, the magazine will no longer feature images of naked women, although they will still pose provocatively

NEW YORK •Last month, Mr Cory Jones, a top editor at Playboy, went to see its founder, Mr Hugh Hefner, at the Playboy Mansion.
 

In a wood-panelled dining room, Mr 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.

Mr Hefner, 89, still listed as editor-in-chief, agreed. As part of a redesign that will be unveiled in March, Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be nude.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. "That battle has been fought and won," said Mr Scott Flanders, Playboy's chief executive. "You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it's just passe 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 have lost their shock value, commercial value and cultural relevance.

Don't get me wrong. Twelve-year-old me is very disappointed in current me. But it's the right thing to do.

MR CORY JONES, a top editor at Playboy, on the decision to dispense with nudity

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 have disappeared. Though detailed figures are not kept for adult magazines, those that remain exist in severely diminished form, available mostly in specialist stores.

Penthouse magazine 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, the Playboy logo is one of the most recognisable in the world, along with those of Apple and Nike.

This time, as the magazine seeks to compete with start-ups such as Vice, Mr 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 interviewees have included Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Luther King Jr and Jimmy Carter. Madonna, Sharon Stone and Naomi Campbell posed for the magazine at the peak of their fame. Its best-selling issue, November 1972, sold more than seven million copies.

Even those who disliked it cared enough to pay attention - pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a waitress, or Playboy Bunny, in one of Mr Hefner's spin-off clubs to write an expose for Show Magazine in 1963.

When Mr 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..."

Dian Hanson, author of a sixvolume history of men's magazines and an editor for Taschen, said Mr Hefner "just revolutionised the whole direction of how we live, of our lifestyles and the kind of sex you might have in America. But taking the nudity out of Playboy is going to leave what?" 

The latest redesign is more pragmatic. The magazine had already made some content safe for work, Mr Flanders said, in order to be allowed on social media platforms such as 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 four million unique users a month.

The magazine will adopt a cleaner, more modern style, said Mr Jones, who is also chief content officer.

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. It is not yet decided whether there will still be a centrefold.

Its sex columnist, Mr 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, Mr Flanders said, is young men who live in cities.

Some of the moves, like expanded coverage of liquor, are partly commercial, he 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 aged 18 to 30something, highly coveted by publishers.

The magazine will feature visual artists, 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 for items such as toiletries, clothing, liquor and jewellery. Nudity in the magazine risks complaints and diminished distribution.

Mr Flanders and Mr Jones feel that the magazine remains relevant, not least because the world has gradually adopted Mr Hefner's libertarian views on a variety of social issues. Asked if Mr Hefner's views on women were the exception to that rule, Mr Flanders said Mr Hefner had "always celebrated the beauty of the female figure".

"Don't get me wrong," Mr 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."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Playboy poised to cover up'. Print Edition | Subscribe