Editorial Policy and the Old and New PLAYBOY

PLAYBOY's current state is a direct reflection of editorial policy—the cumulative result of editorial decisions made over a long period of time.

In my view, that editorial policy was to stick closely to an established formula for organizing and presenting content in each issue of PLAYBOY. While this formula was initially phenomenally successful, over the long term this evolution, not revolution policy was a recipe for stagnation. The resulting public perception of PLAYBOY as "tired" is a natural outcome.

Obviously, PLAYBOY hasn't been entirely stagnant, and the magazine issues do reflect changing times and the American pop culture of which PLAYBOY is a part. However, certain features have been particularly static: After Hours, Advisor, Interview, Party Jokes, and more generally, the overall layout (organization and pace) of each issue. Any changes at all have been so subtle as to be easily overlooked by most readers. A case in point is the highly subtle feature redesign introduced with the January 2000 issue, and even that didn't apply to the Interview which retained its 1962 look or the Party Jokes which retained its 1955 look.

With the recent efforts to revitalize the magazine, there have been more changes in PLAYBOY over the past year than over the past 25; nevertheless, the same features have remained resistant to change. As new approaches are introduced, they sit very uncomfortably next to the traditional, fixed look of the older features. I think it is clear that there has been a deliberate editorial decision not to alter these historical features. Perhaps the editors think altering them is risky since the magazine is so heavily identified with them; the Interview in particular is iconic. However, I think there is a natural problem with this conservative approach: how can the editors expect to change the perception of the magazine if they are not willing to consider changing these core identifying features?

As much as the Interview has remained fixed in appearance, many in this project have noted the dilution of its content in recent years. If the Interview is iconic, it is because it has earned that status through top quality content: probing questions given to an impressive array of prominent subjects. However, more recently subjects of the Interview have tended heavily toward actors and musicians who have a product to promote (Lisa Marie Presley with a new CD, Tobey Maguire with a new movie, etc.). While there is nothing inherently wrong with this (these people are "hot" in the current news), the heavy focus on the entertainment media represents many lost opportunities to exploit the uniqueness and weight of this feature that could favorably distinguish PLAYBOY from its competition. The weight of the Interview can only remain strong if its content justifies that perception; and its historic weight is something that is of much value to PLAYBOY. I think it would be much to PLAYBOY's advantage to reserve the Interview for more serious content, and design a new feature for current media/promotional opportunities. If properly done, the new feature could add measurably to the uniqueness and prestige of the magazine.

Reviewing the updated PLAYBOY in a Chicago Tribune feature dated June 29, 2003, Tribune Art Director Jason McKean had this to say:

    Claims that this is a new, hip-to-20-somethings PLAYBOY are greatly
    exaggerated. So far, efforts amount to nothing more than a fresh
    coat of paint, not a complete renovation.  The main problem is a
    schizophrenic desire to appeal to multiple generations.  The
    departments of yesteryear remain ... but they're now coupled with
    "youth infusing" sidebars and featurettes.  Suddenly, there are
    video game reviews and a short interview with rapper 50 Cent
    alongside geezer yuks courtesy of "Playboy's Party Jokes"...

    It's a hodgepodge of information and ideas that lacks unity in
    voice, reason or, perhaps most important, intrigue.

While I do not think that McKean is entirely accurate in dismissing the updated PLAYBOY as having "nothing more than a fresh coat of paint" (SEE: Comments On The New PLAYBOY), his assessment of the awkward juxtaposition of old and new is right on the mark. To be more precise, PLAYBOY today lacks a sense of coherent, unified design: any overall design concept seems very weak. It is problematic that so much of the original design has been retained while being corrupted and diluted with new ideas. The same can be said of the content now that a "brassier attitude" has been surgically grafted onto the old formula. PLAYBOY is now a bit like Frankenstein: an awkward assemblage of parts that don't really fit together.

Peggy Wilkins
Last modified: Sun Mar 28 19:09:18 CST 2004