Playboy Magazine announced yesterday that it will drop images of naked women in its future editions, but its branding challenges could be insurmountable. Can Playboy get its brand mojo back?
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“Yeah, you buy it for the editorial content. Yeah, right!”
This may seem like a stretch to some, but Playboy was once known among the literary and journalism world as having editorial content of the highest quality and by the best writers.
I admit it. When I hit puberty, I bought a few editions of Playboy. And yes, I looked with awe at the photos. (If that shocks you, well, you can safely read on. That’s as bad as this post gets… but I do suggest that you don’t buy my book!)
A half-decade later, I started buying the glossy magazine again… but not for the reason you might think.
As a Magazine Journalism major at Syracuse University‘s Newhouse School of Public Communications, my MAG 500 and MAG 505 professors insisted that Playboy contained some of the best feature writing in the editorial world.
“How had I missed that?” I quipped in Bill Glavin‘s Magazine Article Writing class.
Professor Glavin quipped back. “So now you don’t have to hide it in your knapsack when you run down to the bookstore this afternoon, Mr. Vincent.”
I have to admit, I did. That very afternoon, I must’ve looked like a bad spy, as I glanced around the university bookstore, pretending to peruse the wide array of magazines… even though I had already lined up my object of desire: Playboy.
Once I had that September 1978 edition in my hands, I surreptitiously approached the cashier with the magazine cover face down. I smoothly slipped the glossy treasure into my already-unzipped book bag before the cashier had even made my change.
No, I didn’t shun those pages with naked women, but, hey! I had an assignment to do!
When I (finally) looked through the table of contents, I found some great articles! Having fallen in love with Europe a year earlier, I read all 4,000 words on Transylvania as a cultural treasure chest. Whoa! I just learned that the place was actually real, that it was in Romania and that its heritage was way beyond Count Dracula!
And look at this article! Big oil was (already) a secretive machine that had joined forces with President Nixon and the CIA, and had ganged up to discredit Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis for reasons none other than greed!
Hey! This was insightful stuff! Now I could proudly subscribe to the magazine and show each edition off around campus before it hit the newsstands, right?
Who would believe me? “Yeah, dude. You just read the articles. Yeah, right!”
No Nudes Is Good News
Playboy‘s announcement yesterday to drop images of fully naked women could be more than a day late and a dollar short, but maybe the magazine can survive.
As Jason Abbruzzese wrote today in Mashable, the nudes that once stood out in Playboy are no longer rare.
“The battle has been fought and won,” said Playboy CEO Scott Flanders yesterday in The New York Times.
“You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Flanders said. “So it’s just passé at this juncture.”
The magazine would certainly die if it were to stay on its course of being perceived, correctly or not, as a naughty rag. Indeed, its U.S. subscription and newsstand sales have dropped since its zenith of 5.6 million in the late 70s to 800,000 today.
Publications like Vanity Fair and Esquire have eaten Playboy‘s proverbial lunch, while online has eaten everybody’s dinner. It wasn’t always so. Playboy‘s editorial was, once upon a time, almost without peer.
In 1976, then U.S. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was quoted in Playboy as saying he had committed adultery in his heart many times, but never actually cheated on his wife. In a pre-online sense, the story went viral.
In 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were interviewed by the magazine, and the story of the real anger and bitterness about The Beatles breakup unfolded in the public’s eyes.
Say what you will, Playboy has broken some big stories over the years. And I’m betting more are on the way.
Has The Original Brand Promise Changed?
Some see Playboy‘s founder, Hugh Hefner, as a womanizer because he started the most successful men’s magazine in history, a magazine that has featured seductive pics of nude women. Hanging around The Mansion in his silk red robe and smoking a pipe with scantily clad beauties smiling at him certainly doesn’t make Hefner the darling of feminists, either.
While I, in no way, shape or form, see Hefner as a role model, he does have some redeeming qualities. He is a staunch advocate of gay rights, civil rights and a long-time foe of drug prohibition. Agree with these causes or not, Hefner has leveraged his celebrity status for something deeper than mere hedonism.
While it will be hard for the magazine to change its image overnight, I believe the latest content and design refocus is actually consistent with the original brand promise.
In Playboy‘s inaugural 1953 edition featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover, Hefner’s Letter From The Editor stated that the magazine would target the modern man who enjoys “putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz [and] sex.”
While it’s been decades since we’ve used the word “phonograph,” the above target audience actually sounds more like a metrosexual than it does a salacious sex maniac.
Can Playboy get its brand mojo back?
As a traditional ad agency exec told me three decades ago about brand building, “It’s easier to give birth to a baby than it is to wake up a dead man.”
Perhaps Playboy has died a slow death and it’s simply too late. I’m not here to advocate its brand strength, but I am convinced that with some good brand storytelling, they should be able to revive the mojo in the nearly dead man.
When I read The New York Times article yesterday, I immediately checked the magazine out online. There wasn’t one nude photo on the home page, and I was immediately drawn to everything from recipes by award-winning chefs to these two articles: To Make Ends Meet, These Massachusetts Monks Brew Beer and Daniel Craig Has Just Had It With Playing James Bond.
It might not be Picasso or Nietzsche, but I’m betting that, with time, the Playboy editors and contributors will provide some in-depth feature writing, and even some breaking news, so that the product lives up to the brand expectation… and so that guys like me won’t have to be ashamed to read it on a plane.
We will actually be able to say, “Yeah, I buy it for the editorial content,” and keep a straight face.
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I help brands create effective stories by putting communications strategy and “love” into the sales and marketing process.
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Photo in public domain.