Makeover nips and tucks, keeping the curves
By Jeff Bercovici
Are you ready for your first glimpse of the all-new Playboy?
Don't hold your breath. In redesigning the iconic but ailing 50-year-old men's title, editorial director James Kaminsky says he has pursued a course of incrementalism rather than wholesale change.
"What I wanted to avoid was there's one issue of old Playboy and then the next issue of new Playboy," says Kaminsky, who jumped to Playboy last fall from Maxim, where he served as executive editor.
"What I wanted, and what I think we've done, is a gradual process where things are changing in each issue. We don't want to churn our readers."
As of the June issue, which features a redesigned front of the book, the makeover is 40 to 50 percent complete, says Kaminsky. Next up is a new back-of-the-book service/lifestyle section with coverage of fashion, cars and gear.
Kaminsky's hiring sparked widespread speculation -- understandable, given his provenance -- that founder Hugh Hefner had decided the way to make Playboy profitable again was to take it in the direction of so-called lad magazines like Maxim and FHM, which have come to dominate the newsstand in recent years.
Kaminsky has repeatedly insisted that he has no intention of laddifying Playboy by eliminating long articles in favor of text boxes and graphic clutter. He does, however, see opportunities for emulating Maxim et al in small ways.
"I'd say one of the things I'd take from the success of those magazines is that they never take the reader's interest for granted," he says.
Lad titles, he says, are adept at drawing readers in with what editors call "access points" or "entryways" -- humorous charts and sidebars or photographs with "deep captions."
"In the case of Maxim, entire stories are access points and entry ways," says Kaminsky. "In the case of Playboy, we'll use them as devices to get people to read ambitious stories. You can still run an 8,000 word piece on a complex subject, but it might mean you have to be more creative with your illustrations" -- by, for instance, adding a funny sidebar and more pulled quotes.
"If they don't want to read things in a linear way, we might have to give them the option to start in the middle and read to the end, then go back to the beginning."
One way Playboy will differ from the lad titles is that it will continue to feature nudity. (Interestingly, "sophisticated" men's magazines like Details and Esquire are less shy about showing bare breasts than Maxim and FHM.)
Increasingly, however, female subjects will be depicted partially nude or minimally clothed in the style of mainstream men's titles. The idea is to be able to attract the most famous actresses and models to a magazine that has all too often had to rely on lady wrestlers and reality TV "stars" to drive newsstand sales.
"What has always worked for us is beautifully shot pictures of beautiful women in various states of undress, but we define it differently for all the different women that we shoot," says Kaminsky. "In some cases, it may mean that a very famous face means a smaller amount of nudity."
In addition to be more accommodating, Playboy has also hired a well-connected celebrity wrangler: Heidi Parker, former editor in chief of Movieline. Kaminsky says the magazine is on the verge of securing an agreement from a well-known female celebrity to appear on the August issue's cover.
Pumping up newsstand sales, which plummeted 18.8 percent to an average 354,437 in the second half of last year, is an end in itself, but it's also the means to another desired goal: lowering Playboy's median reader age of 32. Kaminsky knows that newsstand readers tend to be younger than subscribers.
"What I think is going to happen as a natural byproduct of growth on the newsstand is the median reader age is going to go down."
Total circulation inched up 1.8 percent to 3.21 million in the second half of last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
May 20, 2003
-Jeff Bercovici is a staff writer for Media Life.