It’s the end of an era. Playboy, the magazine that spearheaded the sexual revolution and became a worldwide cultural icon, has officially become an irrelevant relic. In a desperate move to salvage what he can of his brainchild, Hugh Hefner has decided to go PG-13 and end nudity in the mag’s pages.
Hef’s magazine burst onto the scene 62 years ago this month in a more reserved and innocent era; the nudes and centerfolds were unheard of in a mainstream publication. Controversy, forbidden flesh, and Hefner’s astute direction helped rocket Playboy to cultural prominence.
People joked about buying Playboy for the articles, but in fact it became a respected forum for noted writers of fiction and nonfiction from Vladimir Nabokov to Norman Mailer; it offered exclusive in-depth interviews of famous figures from John Lennon to Jimmy Carter; and it featured artists, photographers and cartoonists from Helmut Newton to Jules Feiffer.
But the magazine long ago lost its relevance and cultural power. When was the last time Playboy has been a party to – much less at the center of – any cultural conversation?
It paved the way for the pornification of American culture so successfully that for decades now it has been unable to keep up. It’s not even as titillating anymore as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which runs during prime-time hours on TV. It’s less sexual than the latest Nicki Minaj music video. It is positively prudish by comparison to ubiquitous internet pornography.
As Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told The New York Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so [Playboy] is just passé at this juncture.”
Its numbers reflect that decline. Circulation has dropped from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 today. The magazine loses $3 million a year domestically.
Most of the company’s profit now comes from licensing its famous brand and logo around the globe on merchandise from bath products to jewelry. Glossy pictorials of nude women in the magazine now threaten to alienate shoppers and diminish distribution.
And so Playboy editor Cory Jones presented a counterintuitive proposal to Hefner for the magazine’s survival: abandon the layouts of naked young women altogether and rebrand it as something akin to GQ.
The company had actually tested the changes in focus groups and ended nudity at its website over a year ago. As a result, the traffic boomed from about four million unique users per month to about 16 million, and the readership began to skew toward the coveted younger demographic, dropping from an average age of 47 to just over 30.
Hef agreed to the proposal, and the redesign will launch in March. But as Lifezette Editor-in-Chief Laura Ingraham noted on her syndicated radio show this week of Hef’s influence, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
That genie-in-the-bottle has been more like the opening of a Pandora’s box. Pornography has always existed in one form or another, of course, but Playboymarked the beginning of the mainstreaming of it. Porn has gone from an outlying subculture to near-mainstream status, and the impact on men, women, and children alike has been devastating. Thanks to the internet, porn addiction has become a legitimate and widespread medical condition that heavily impacts marriages and relationships. The objectification of women and the obsession with the sexualized female body image is everywhere in pop culture.
Playboy as we once knew it may have flatlined, but its incalculable impact lives on.
From Popzette, 10/14/15