Dan Stiffler <email@example.com>, 15 Apr 2003
I read Peggy's posting on the PML about the changes in recent issues, and she makes a good case for at least some improvement in the design. The use of lower-case fonts on the cover, for example, does lend some variety to the tiresome formula and, I might add, the word NUDE seems to have been dismissed recently in favor of more clever ways of saying the same thing. For myself, I have seen some pages with nice layout and noticeable artistic touches. For example, I liked the layout for "The Last Score" in the April issue; the use of bullet holes in the initial T was good, and the following pages made use of the color theme established on the opening page (the red bars in what is essentially a b&w shot on p. 83). On the other hand, I thought The Year in Music was essentially unreadable—that is, I didn't bother to read much of it, although I am a fan of both Steve Earle and the Donnas. The rabbit head symbol with a guitar instead of a bow tie was kind of cool, however. I am not sure I have seen that before. Geez, that alone would have made for a *great* cover, but I guess good design plays second fiddle to second-tier celebrities these days.
I am just not sure that tweaking the design is a solution to what ails PLAYBOY. Since we started this forum, I have been wondering exactly what I would do if I could contribute to returning the magazine to its greatness. (Please note, I said "greatness," not "circulation peak," although that could follow under certain circumstances.)
The only demographic that I am interested in is the one that cares about "living life to the hilt" with sophistication and urbanity. Some of these changes are radical, and I have no illusions about their prospects. But, as someone for whom PLAYBOY has been a defining feature of his life, I think these changes would make a difference. There is some logic to my ordering here, but not always.
1. Improve the quality of reproduction. The thin paper has to go. If this means an increase in cover price, so be it. Stop giving away the subscriptions just to get advertising numbers (The Atlantic recently tripled its subscription rate, saying something about perceived value). A quality magazine should have quality paper. It's that simple. Check out Orion for perfect bound issues with quality or the Smithsonian for stapled issues with a huge run (actually I would like to see the staples return, but that is not a necessary change). Orion sells for $7 and has gorgeous reproductions. The thought of seeing PLAYBOY with Orion production values makes my heart ache.
2. Emphasize the photographers. When PLAYBOY ran its first survey back in 1955, the editors learned that photography was easily the favorite hobby of its readers. For that reason, lots of early pictorials make note of the shooting, including the occasional image of photographer with model. Recently, PLAYBOY has made some use of the celebrity photographer, but the emphasis has been, predictably, on "celebrity." This is not entirely bad (one more reason, I suppose, for the average Joe to wish that he were famous), but why not seek out a range of quality glamour photographers, both known and aspiring? The magazine should have as its focus the photography of beautiful women in various stages of undress. If the quality of the paper matched the quality of the models and photographers, well, then we might really have something.
3. Use the history. As most cyber club members know, PLAYBOY has the richest catalog of photographic nudes in the history of the planet. No competition. Each issue should have a featured portfolio of classic unpublished nudes. This was done before, but only rarely on quality paper, and then they were reprints. Please, just for a minute, think of a fine cyber portfolio images reproduced as Aperture would. I happen to be thinking of an absolutely killer b&w of Gloria Walker (similar shot in the Playmate Book), but I am guessing that you came up with one of your own. I know how good a photographic print of PLAYBOY's best pin-ups can look; PLAYBOY should take advantage its museum quality resources, but—I am going to say it once more—it must do so with production that matches the art. It must set itself apart, once again.
4. Cut down the dependence upon celebrity in both pictorials and interviews. The main interview should be a thinker, someone who is articulate; use the twenty questions for the hot celebrities. Really, did Colin Farrell need more than 20 Qs to let us know who he is? I enjoy the occasional celebrity pictorial (they are a crucial part of the magazine's history, after all), but PLAYBOY is currently addicted to seeing which celebrity du jour will drop her clothes. It's become America's great guessing game. How embarrassing, for this to become an aspect of identity.
5. Bring back the top fiction. According to Gretchen's latest and all signs coming out of PEI, this is unlikely to happen. However, PLAYBOY built its "beyond-the-centerfold" reputation on its fiction (as we recently read, the interview and fiction were hallmarks of the magazine according to Char Miller at Trinity University, San Antonio). In PLAYBOY's early years the magazine ran fiction that had been previously published, just to establish a standard of quality. While PLAYBOY still ought to pursue original publications, reprinting first-rate stories could provide a service: the best of recent fiction that would appeal to the sophisticated male reader. Maybe a mix. But to drop the fiction is to say PLAYBOY doesn't care about its literary heritage. What a mistake. (And I don't want to hear about people not reading anymore. Remember, there has always been a group of people who cannot read with sustained attention. Hell, there are plenty of people who don't read much at all. Is that PLAYBOY's target audience? A pox, if it is.)
6. Make the reviews matter. Recently, PLAYBOY released its music reviewers, four of them, and hired a new batch. What does it matter? Are these new kids on the block supposed to be more hip? A reader could never tell because the most any review runs is three or four sentences. Some are shorter. The film reviews are equally superficial, although I do appreciate Maltin's short essays on film-related topics—but even those are sidebars. How much better to focus on one or two films that would be of particular interest to the PLAYBOY reader, rather than trying to cover more bases with less? Book reviews are even less substantial, if that is possible. This is exactly the place for PLAYBOY to once again establish a stable of writers. And then let them write.
7. Stand for something again. I'm a little unfair here, because the Forum remains the one area of PLAYBOY that is consistent with its political philosophy: mainly, civil liberties. And the Forum is the one part of the magazine that I consistently read. James R. Petersen's influence on those pages is unmistakable, and I now wonder how long he will last with the current housecleaning. What I see in the wider content of the magazine is a drift to the right. The love song to George W. Bush by Mike Shropshire in the Jan 03 issue made me retch. I cannot believe that PLAYBOY would have run such tripe twenty, thirty years ago. Frankly, PLAYBOY has been hiding politically since the Meese Commission; men like Petersen are holding the fort. (Side note: When I first joined the PML [9/95], one of the list members was Jules Siegel, a journalist who had written for PLAYBOY from 1969 until 1982. He used to rail about the magazine's lost political soul; it's taken me a while to see what Jules could see so clearly because he had once been so close.)
8. Promote the playmate. Brian Sorgatz has already suggested this but, the more I study the first ten years of the magazine, the more I see that this concept has been lost in the current cloud of celebrity. Even though the playmate still gets the foldout (no longer the centerfold per se), she is often lost in the fuss over the cover model, who is most frequently some grade of celebrity du jour. This is a colossal mistake and it is one that could be remedied; but it will take the end of celebrity addiction. The playmate should be the featured pictorial each and every issue; she should be the girl who the regular reader looks forward to meeting. She is a key component, some would say the *essential* component, of PLAYBOY's identity. Better contractual terms for playmates wouldn't be a bad idea either; after all, the appeal of the playmate far outstrips all but the rare celebrity pictorial.
9. Give the cover back to the artists. I have hammered this concept ever since I have been on the PML, but there is just no comparison when the art department gets to do a cover without contents type. Most of today's covers, tweaks aside, are nothing better than a Cosmo/Maxim layout. This is not, I promise, a case of, oh, the good old days of Art Paul (although he was, I believe, a genius without whom the magazine would not have soared as it did). I have seen excellent cover art from the current staff and director—just not enough to define the magazine anymore. I cannot believe that the artists want to cover their images with predictable stacks of type. No artists would do that without some sense of compromise. After the playmate, the cover is the signature feature of PLAYBOY. Give it back.
10. Recover the marketplace. I think there are three ways to do this, all of which involve some risk:
A) Open Playboy Stores in malls around America, similar in scale to Spencer's. Playboy certainly has a product line that would support a mall store the size of a typical Spencer's (a chain that carries some Playboy products, as it is), and their sales would go up exponentially if those products were available for impulse purchase. The online and catalog business is huge in America, but lots of money still changes hands directly. Not only would the current magazines be available but also back numbers, giving each store a collector's ambiance. With that in mind, I would decorate the stores with historic themes. This is the least risky option.
B) Some on the PML have mentioned a nationwide return of the Playboy Club. I am more wary about this option, but handled properly it might work. Unlike those who would like to see Playboy strip clubs, I would argue for something like the Hooters franchises (I think Alfred has mentioned this option), with waitresses and traveling playmates wearing Playboy T-shirts and shorts, styles which would be available in the store annex (again, like Hooters). That said, running a restaurant is a challenge and the failure rate of most such endeavors is close to 90%, as I understand. Chancy, but it could be big if done properly.
C) This might be my most radical—and reluctant—suggestion, but I know the concept is on the table anyway, so I am going to address it: kill explicit nudity in the magazine. At one level, I can hardly believe I am saying this. But, as I give close attention to just how wonderful those modest centerfolds and layouts of the fifties are, I realize that sexy shots do not have to be explicit. If PLAYBOY killed the explicit nudity, it could broaden its marketplace without investing in a new enterprise. PLAYBOY could be in grocery stores and in drug stores again. I don't think I would be inclined in this direction, however, if it were not for playboy.com and the Special Editions. I can envision the magazine providing the "tease" to a broader audience; the cyber club would be the place where the playmate "delivers." I am not suggesting that the playmates all of a sudden cover up. Only in the flagship magazine. Indeed, the Special Editions should remain explicit, and playmates should be featured more regularly there. Give this a minute to think about: a magazine that has pictures of a gorgeous girl, sexy pictures but she's really not showing much of anything, and you can take this magazine anywhere because you can buy it anywhere, yet you know that you can also go home, turn on the computer, log-on to members-only cyber club, and—if you really want—see that girl drop her clothes.
I have the following dream. PLAYBOY will return to its roots and rediscover how it became great. In this day and age, it will be generally accepted in all but the most radical right or radical feminist households. People who used to read PLAYBOY, but gave it up for whatever reason, will try it again and will like it. Young people who are reaching for the "hilt" of life will discover PLAYBOY and identify with its distinction from other men's magazines. A quality magazine, drawing upon its great history, setting the current standard for male entertainment, doing so with respect for its readers, its staff, and—most of all—its playmates.