Can an Old Leopard Change Its Silk Pajamas?

Can an Old Leopard Change Its Silk Pajamas?

Hugh M. Hefner, seen here recently at a 77th birthday celebration, is considering changes at Playboy including allowing its cover subjects to wear more clothes.


As founder and editor of Playboy, Hugh M. Hefner captured the aspirations of millions of men who were coming of age. But more recently his rapport with young people seems limited to the array of mid-20's women he has on his arm. Twelve days ago, he celebrated his 77th birthday by taking the seven young women he dates out to dinner.

Mr. Hefner may not have lost a step, but Playboy magazine, which once defined a certain kind of cool to millions of young men, is in danger of becoming the dad in the basement at a party for teenagers -- amusing, but not really part of the party.

At 50 years old, Playboy magazine is all but eligible for its AARP card and Playboy Enterprises, a publicly traded company, is struggling to see if the old boy can still swing. Mr. Hefner has became increasingly uncomfortable as Maxim, Stuff and FHM, all young men's magazines that avoid nudity, but just barely, have elbowed Playboy aside in the battle for the id and libido of the young American male.

To try to spark this May-December romance, the company hired James Kaminsky, 41, a former executive editor of Maxim, to update the magazine. Although Playboy's subject matter is sexy, the challenge it confronts is no different from the one faced by Reader's Digest and Good Housekeeping: Playboy needs to make a storied brand with a huge readership relevant to a new generation.

The current crop of potential readers has been raised with pornographic images just a mouse click away, making Mr. Hefner's once transgressive pictorials of the surgically enriched girl next door seem almost quaint. And nudity in magazines has lost some of its tang at a time when Christina Aguilera recently posed for the cover of Rolling Stone wearing nothing but a well-tuned guitar.

Mr. Kaminsky, who said he grew up reading Playboy, was not brought in to reinvent it so much as to modernize its look and make the institutional voice more contemporary. As part of that effort, the magazine will depart more frequently from its tradition of total nudity so that it can entice celebrities to pose for its covers.

"It is a living, breathing thing and it needs to evolve," Mr. Kaminsky said in an interview in Playboy's New York offices. But a makeover is a delicate task for a magazine with an average circulation of 3.2 million -- down from the 6.5 million in the early 1970's, but still the largest circulation of any men's magazine by a significant margin.

Playboy's far-flung empire of television, video and licensing depends on keeping the core identity of the brand intact. In fact, last year the entertainment division, which produces cable and video programming, brought in $121.6 million in revenues, compared with $111.8 million for the publishing division. That was the first time the ancillary businesses produced more revenue than the publication. The $32.4 million in profits from the entertainment division dwarfed the $2.7 million the publishing enterprises made.

The magazine is becoming a hood ornament on the larger enterprise. Advertising pages were down 25 percent in the last two years and newsstand sales, an important indicator of consumer interest, plummeted 18.8 percent, to 354,436, in the last six months of 2002 compared with the same period in 2001. Maxim, a mating of frat-boy humor and British lad magazine boisterousness, produced by Dennis Publishing USA, sold an average of 847,567 copies on the newsstand in the same period. Maxim may be reaching the upper limit of what it can sell on the newsstand as it tries to convert single-copy buyers to subscribers. Newsstand sales dropped 3.8 percent in the last six months of 2002.

The revenues from publishing may not be what keeps Mr. Hefner in silk pajamas, but according to Christie A. Hefner, chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises and the daughter of the founder, Mr. Hefner cares desperately about the success of the magazine he invented.

"To a certain extent, the magazine has been respectable and well done, but it has really been in the back seat of the businesses of the company," she said. "He is deeply motivated to help make Jim successful."

Mr. Hefner chose Mr. Kaminsky to replace Arthur Kretchmer, the editorial director who had been with Playboy for 36 years and is now retiring, because he knew the magazine was in need of a hip replacement. But Mr. Hefner will assist in the procedure. "He is not an absentee landlord," Mr. Kaminsky said. "He works every day on the magazine."

Jann Wenner, another maverick who produced a magazine that captured the times when he invented Rolling Stone, wonders whether Mr. Hefner really wants fundamental change.

"He loves the magazine, and I don't think he really wants to change it that much," Mr. Wenner said. "As long as he is having a great time doing it, what is the incentive?"

Many of the magazine's charms are by now anachronistic. The magazine's cartoons seem dated, but in a poll readers ranked them as the No. 1 reason they liked the magazine. The centerfold's "turnoffs" have remained remarkably unchanged over the years -- Miss June, for instance, has no time for "egotistical, materialistic and superficial people" -- but imagine the howls if those insights were dropped.

"Certain iconic parts of the magazine I will be slow to screw around with," Mr. Kaminsky said.

Mr. Kaminsky, who said he was hired last fall as a "change agent," brought in two other editors from Maxim, and wants to bring some of the lad magazine sensibility and energy to his current assignment.

"There have been more changes in the last three issues than there were in the last 10 years," he said, adding that Mr. Hefner was embracing change and "has yet to play the owner card."

The front section of the magazine, Playboy After Hours, had been somewhat disorganized and topically dated. Under Mr. Kaminsky, it has become a modern magazine section with well-turned infographics, quips and off-the-wall charts. The magazine's historical reliance on illustration -- a hallmark of Mr. Hefner -- has given way to a much more photographic approach because, as Mr. Kaminsky said, "photographs are the way young guys process information."

A discrete, recurring fashion section has been mandated and a new crop of photographers has been brought on board. Sarah Kozer, a bachelorette whom Joe Millionaire did not choose, comes in for even more exposure in the June issue than she received as part of the Fox reality television series, highlighting a source of C-list celebrities who can generate newsstand sales out of prurience or curiosity.

But Mr. Kaminsky is determined to make Playboy a place where women who already have careers will appear. After all, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Sharon Stone and Bo Derek sat for sessions with Playboy in the past. A celebrity wrangler has been retained, and Mr. Kaminsky wants the magazine to compete for cover shoots.

Mr. Hefner is willing to re-examine the magazine's traditional premise that the vast majority of women who submit to being photographed for the cover of Playboy should expect to do the full monty.

"The simple truth of the matter is that the reader would rather see a hot pictorial of Britney Spears that might not be completely nude, rather than a nude pictorial of somebody's cousin," Mr. Hefner said.

Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, says that Mr. Hefner, in spite of his iconic status, does not know who he really is. "It comes down to this: Hef thinks he is publishing Time or Newsweek," Mr. Flynt said. "He has never been able to come to grips with the fact that he is a pornographer."

Mr. Flynt says that Mr. Hefner needs more explicit sexual matter to compete at a time when the Web is rife with sexual content, but Bob Guccione, Mr. Hefner's former nemesis at Penthouse, took that route in response to the increased competition and his once robust magazine withered.

Mark Golin, a former editor of Maxim who now develops online content for Time Inc. and America Online, said he doubted that people bought Playboy for its relatively tame sexual content.

"They have to decide what the new cool looks like," Mr. Golin said. "They don't have to invent it, but they have to seek it out. Hugh Hefner didn't invent the sexual revolution; he just collected it into a lifestyle."

The assets of a mass market magazine -- a significant legacy, a huge list of subscribers -- can become impediments to change, said Richard B. Stolley, senior editorial adviser at Time Inc. and the founding editor of People magazine, who was also part of the unsuccessful effort to revive Life magazine.

"I think that you have to change because you have no other choice," Mr. Stolley said. "But how do you change something as established as Playboy? Very slowly and carefully."

Mr. Stolley said there might be a place for a reinvigorated Playboy to find readers.

"Everybody in the industry talks about where the Maxim readers go when they graduate from that magazine," he said. "The laddie magazines have gotten young men to read in numbers that they did not before. As they get older and more sophisticated, maybe that's a place where Playboy could position itself."

Peggy Wilkins
Last modified: Sun Nov 30 19:31:48 CST 2003