PLAYBOY: Reinvention

Dan Stiffler
Thu, 30 Jan 2003 14:53:33 -0500

Peggy's recent post about the reinvention seminar gives me pause.

During PLAYBOY's first decade and especially during its first year, many of
the letters published in Dear Playboy were about the magazine itself, rather
than specific articles or features.  Once again, I think it is useful to
consider what initially made PLAYBOY the best selling men's magazine (a
position that, as Peggy points out elsewhere, it still holds).  Let's begin
by taking a look at a series of letters from 10/54:


At last!  A magazine doing what ______* forgot how to do about fifteen years
ago.  Just keep it up and you are assured one reader for life.  Just don't
louse it up with articles on what fly to use while fishing at Woebegone Lake
or what color under-shorts to wear while dancing the mambo.  I have never
enjoyed any publication quite so much and look forward to each issue with
great anticipation.--Robert B. Cook; Evansville, Indiana

There has been a crying need for a magazine like PLAYBOY ever since ______*
became a man's Vogue.  Keep up the good work and let's have more stories by
Ray Bradbury and Thorne Smith.  You can expect a three year subscription
from me at Christmas.--Thomas A. Uhlig; Brooklyn, New York

PLAYBOY has replaced the ______* of yesteryear, and I hope PLAYBOY remains
the same, and doesn't change its policy as ______* did after it was once
established.--Julius Herbst, Jr. Pres.; Aramiago Record Distributors;
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

And PLAYBOY's reply:

The only policy PLAYBOY has is trying to produce the best possible
entertainment magazine for the sophisticated, urban male and that, we assure
you, Julius, will never change.

*A popular men's magazine, the title of which escapes us at the moment.--The


PLAYBOY is, of course, having fun at the expense of Esquire, a magazine for
which Hefner once worked and which had provided him with his early dreams
about what a magazine for men should be.  Just take a look at the Esquire of
the late 30s and early 40s--those issues that Hefner was reading just as
young men would subsequently read his magazine.  You will find a magazine
with lively cover art, including the representative Esky, a middle-age
gentleman; with some of the finest fiction of the day; with sassy cartoons
and humor; with lifestyle articles for the "sophisticated, urban male"; and
with Petty and then Varga pin-up girls.

Hefner took this basic model and improved upon it: most notably with
ground-breaking cover art (Arthur Paul's genius was crucial), with
first-rate pin-up photography; and, of course, with the development of the
"girl-next-door" mythos for the magazine's primary feature, its playmate of
the month.

In no way did Hefner invent the genre, but he had the vision--a truly
culture-altering vision--to recognize that a niche in the field of men's
magazines had opened when Esquire had begun to "reinvent" itself.  In some
very significant ways, PLAYBOY stepped into Esquire's place and, with
Hefner's own genius and passion, improved the original model.

I believe this dynamic between Esquire and PLAYBOY is significant.  Hefner
has always seen his magazine in relationship to other magazines in the
field.  Once PLAYBOY displaced Esquire as the top men's magazine, then
Hefner had to be aware of *his* competition.  Of course, for one glorious
and golden decade, he had virtually none.  And the magazine could easily
stick to its promise made in that 10/54 issue issue: to never change its

Before I get to further comments on "the competition," I would like to
revisit an editorial quoted in the 8/60 Playbill.  This piece, from The
Architect's Journal, published in London, is long but I think it bears
scrutiny, in part because PLAYBOY placed such value on it (it takes up about
1/2 of that month's Playbill).  Reyner Bahman's editorial was entitled "I'd
Crawl a Mile for Playboy" (an allusion to a popular cigarette ad at the


Of course I buy it for the giant foldout full-colour pin-ups--PLAYBOY's
Playmates are one of America's greatest gifts to Western culture, and you
know how I go for culture.  But if I was a working hypocrite I could find a
dozen other reasons for keeping abreast of PLAYBOY.  Its interpretation of
the "male interest field" is considerably wider than, say, Esquire: while it
keeps one foot firmly planted in the bedroom door--a stance that Esky has
now abandoned--the other covers a lot of ground.  For instance, PLAYBOY
handles some really hard stuff--quite a lot of Pentagon ears must still be
humming after a Hit-them-where-they-live piece about radioactive fall-out
and another must have hurt Washington dead-heads even with its title: "Cult
of the Aged Leader."  Item: PLAYBOY makes swipes at up-coming public idols
and recently took to pieces the much-publicized reputation of Miss Shirely
MacLaine for repartee, with both scholarship and refreshingly ungentlemanly
mock.  In fact, its performance on the wit and scholarship kick is notable.
Nice pieces they have on, e.g., writing on walls, including the Pompeian
founders of the art, the original Kilroy and an interview with a
slogan-writer of world championship class.  Item, visual funnies: PLAYBOY is
one of the basic platforms for Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, a real weirdie who
deserves to better known in sick circles over hear, and Shel Silverstein who
is, I figure, a plain nut with a fancy beard.  Item, to read: there is a
distinctive line of PLAYBOY fiction and near-fact, planted in the music-biz
end of the beat generation (PLAYBOY has its own Jazz Festival) and the
Sheckley edge of science-fiction.  Item, to look at: PLAYBOY's typography
and layout is among the most ruthless and imaginative that is commercially
available; comparable British material just doesn't exist.  Item,
architecture and interior design (I will repeat that to show I am not
kidding--architecture and interior design): PLAYBOY has over the years
discussed and illustrated quite a lot of furniture, culminating in a Playboy
Bed that makes most European dream beds look very thin and faint.  It has
also shown plans and perspectives of two projected buildings--the Playboy
Penthouse and Playboy's Weekend Hideaway, neither of them by any designers
you have ever heard of, but none the worse for that, and considerably better
than any equivalent projects that one can remember in the Home and Garden


For the sake of chronology, let's note that this praise comes before PLAYBOY
introduces some of its most popular features in the 60s (e.g., the Advisor,
the Interview, and Vargas--the latter a direct tie back to Esquire) and just
as PLAYBOY is introducing its major spin-off from the magazine, the key
club.  Obviously, PLAYBOY would become an even better magazine through the
60s and it would do this not by "reinventing itself" (as the failing Esquire
was constantly doing; Esquire would be sold in the mid-60s) but instead by
developing and expanding its offerings for the "sophisticated, urban male."
Surely, by the end of the 60s, no one could accuse PLAYBOY of having broken
its 1954 promise to "never change."

It is a telling irony, I think, that PLAYBOY devoted such attention in 1960
to the praise of a British journalist.  Without question, PLAYBOY was
justifiably proud of its rapid accent to the top of American men's
magazines, but it was even more "pleased as punch" to have the approval of
the highly cultured British press.  By the end of the decade, however, a
British publication would become a nemesis to PLAYBOY.

There are those who believe that the advent of Penthouse pushed PLAYBOY into
a competition resulting in its "nadir."  As most of you know, I do not
subscribe to that theory.  I will acknowledge that Penthouse influenced
PLAYBOY and that Penthouse's wildly successful first years must have must
have caused some anxiety at PLAYBOY.  After all, PLAYBOY had conquered
Esquire.  Would this new British magazine, with its unabashed presentation
of pubic hair, be the next conquering magazine?  Thus, the pubic wars were
declared.  One of PLAYBOY's most dramatic moves during this period was to
hire Penthouse photographer Ken Marcus, who would stay with the magazine
until the early 80s.  But to say that PLAYBOY was trying to "out-Penthouse
Penthouse," as some have said, is to be missing the entire body for a patch
of pubic hair.

PLAYBOY would have gone the pubic hair route with or without Penthouse.
Were some of their first attempts at explicitness a little awkward?  No
doubt.  But then just check out some of the early centerfolds, when PLAYBOY
was beginning to expose more and more breast.  Was PLAYBOY pushed to this
awkwardness by Penthouse?  Probably.  Big deal.  We are only talking about
an aspect of a single feature in the magazine.

PLAYBOY did NOT change its commitment to the "sophisticated, urban male"
during the 70s.  Indeed, according the portrayal of Larry Flynt in the film
People vs. Larry Flynt, it was exactly PLAYBOY's attention to the
"sophisticated, urban male" that inspired Flynt to create Hustler, a
magazine clearly aimed at the un-sophisticate.  In the film, a young Flynt
is reading a PLAYBOY article on stereo equipment and he looks around at his
friends and says that PLAYBOY is presenting an unattainable lifestyle; that,
in effect, PLAYBOY is mocking its readers who cannot dream the dream.  Well,
Larry Flynt found his audience.  So be it.

PLAYBOY never wanted Larry Flynt's audience.  Those were not the guys Hefner
was thinking about as he worked passionately on his magazine during its
developing years.  No doubt Penthouse got closer to PLAYBOY's intended
audience, but I can clearly remember conversations during the 70s and 80s
about some guys being Penthouse guys and some being PLAYBOY guys.  That
PLAYBOY may have lost some of its guys to Penthouse was no excuse for
PLAYBOY to lose its soul by backing down on its 1954 promise.  And, to my
way of thinking, PLAYBOY kept the faith.  Those Penthouse guys were not
going to stick around anyway.

Much is made of PLAYBOY's circulation figures in the early 70s, with the
peak at 7 million.  That the figured dropped to around 3 million is
sometimes attributed to the success of Penthouse (and even other magazines
like Hustler, Chic, and PLAYBOY's own Oui).  While the other magazines
undoubtedly had a siphoning effect, I contend that PLAYBOY was not going to
maintain anything near a 7 million circulation figure anyway.  The 70s was
the period when the baby boom males who had given PLAYBOY its boost during
the 60s were graduating college and, in many cases, marrying and starting a
family.  While many family men have always read PLAYBOY, for most of the
boomers that shift in lifestyle meant that PLAYBOY had become irrelevant, at
most a nostalgic reminder of earlier (and for some freer) days.  All the
talk about 7 million (it will never happen again, so forget it!) obscures
the very positive fact that PLAYBOY today circulates approximately 3 times
the copies it did in 1960.  This is a good thing.  If PLAYBOY could be
excited and proud about its success in 1960, why not today?

Have we lost all perspective?

Maybe.  Now, we have another "challenger" from the British press, Maxim, and
instead of showing that it has learned from the past, PLAYBOY seems to be
taking this challenge all too seriously.  In a Ken-Marcus-like move, PLAYBOY
has hired the former editor of Maxim to become its editor.  Is this
suggesting a if-you-can't-beat-them, make-them-join-you philosophy?

(I will say this: Ken Marcus shot some mighty fine playmates for PLAYBOY.
Just to name a few: Denise Michele, Sondra Theodore, Janis Schmitt, and the
wondrous Karen Morton.  I can only hope that James Kaminsky will also find
his appropriate place in the PLAYBOY culture.)

However, the more crucial question is this: who is Maxim's audience?  If it
is the "sophisticated, urban male," then PLAYBOY may have something to worry
about.  But I think we all know that "sophistication" is not a hallmark of
Maxim, as it clearly is (or was, depending on your view of the glass) for

I must say that nothing annoyed me more during the last Glamourcon than all
the talk about Maxim.  "Oh, if only PLAYBOY could cut into Maxim's
audience!"  What?  And dumb down the magazine?  And break its promise, the
very promise that brought it success in the first place?

I know that Brad has just said that "we all agree that the Playboy of 1966
is gone forever."  Sadly, I agree with part of that statement.  For one
thing, the cult of celebrity has taken over; for another, and not so minor,
the staples are gone.  So is Mr. Playboy.  But "forever"?

Let me ask a simple question when we think about the challenges facing
PLAYBOY as it enters its second 50 years.  Is there still an audience of
"sophisticated, urban males" in this country?  (btw, you don't have to live
in a city to be "urban"; indeed, PLAYBOY would later use the word "urbane.")

If the answer to that question is yes, then why does PLAYBOY need to
"reinvent" itself and make the same mistake that Esquire did before?

If the answer to that question is no, then god help us all.


Dan Stiffler