Illustration of a Playboy Bunny

Playboy Says Goodbye to Print and Signals the End of an Era

The magazine has been a shadow of its former self for years. Will it be able to keep up in the online publishing world?
May 2, 2020
10 mins read

Sex sells. At least, it used to, but “sex sells” has been a prime marketing motto since the advertising industry was born. And for many years, at the forefront of the industry was the infamous Playboy magazine and legendary playboy and company founder, Hugh Hefner. The Playboy Mansion has always been the pinnacle of sex, money, drugs, parties and fun. Hugh Hefner has been the face of the bachelor lifestyle up until the day he died.

As time evolved, more and more magazines have transferred their content from the page to the screen. “In late November, Glamour came to the same conclusion reached by so many other women’s magazines these days,” wrote Lavanya Ramanathan from the Washington Post. “Print is officially dead, the inexorable ‘pivot to digital’ now complete. Teen Vogue, a junior version of the fashion bible, was already there. Self, purveyor of 1,000 ways to say goodbye to your back fat, disappeared from the racks in 2017. Seventeen, once a lifestyle primer for high school girls everywhere, now will publish only special issues.”

Along with all those periodicals, Playboy magazine, too, is no more. It can be said that when the founder passed, so did the product. It’s a new era for media magazines, and paper just doesn’t cut it anymore (not to mention, cutting back on paper helps saves the planet). Sure, Playboy was ahead of its time for many years, and it helped push forward a woman’s right to sexuality; however, the magazine’s time has come to an end. So, let’s take a look back at how one man changed an entire generation.

Hugh Hefner’s Life and Legacy

Laura Mansnerus from The New York Times did a piece on Hefner’s life shortly after his death. Like many icons, Hugh Hefner didn’t just start as Hugh Hefner. He was born to Methodist parents in 1926. Hefner even said it himself: He grew up “with a lot of repressions,” which gives yet another example of how children raised in constricting households are usually the people who grow up pushing sexual boundaries.

When Hefner was a child, he used to love writing horror stories despite his upbringing. When he reached high school, he exchanged his overtly religious persona for a wild, party-loving personality, and he started illustrating cartoons for a newspaper.

In 1949, he got married to a girl he knew in high school named Mille Williams. Hefner didn’t document those years as happy times.

He started a job at a cardboard-box manufacturer, but immediately resigned when he was told to discriminate against people of color. After working as an advertising copywriter for a department store and at Esquire magazine, Hefner moved on to Children’s Activities magazine, where he was simultaneously making plans to start his own magazine.

Hefner’s magazine wasn’t the first to display nude women; however, his would be the first to have a mainstream audience and distribution, without censorship or restrictions, and be fully legal. It reached newsstands in December 1953, selling 51,000 copies, with classic Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe on its first cover.

After that, Playboy began its journey in revolutionizing sex in society. It became more than just a brand; it became a lifestyle. Besides the magazine and the mansion, Playboy created jewelry, clothing lines, movies and clubs, real money casinos and even resorts.

Even to this day, the Playboy bunny is used in mainstream platforms. The U.K. retailer Misguided partnered with Playboy to create a line that featured the bunny pattern. R&B star Tory Lanez branded himself the Lone Star Playboy, with a similar bunny, but he remixed the design with a chain around its neck and an earring.

Playboy wasn’t just a lewd magazine for men to get their fix from naked women. Hugh Hefner was always about change, and even though many felt that he exploited women and their bodies, there is no denying that without him, sexuality wouldn’t be as progressive as it is today.

Along with many other works, Hefner wrote a 25-piece installment called “The Playboy Philosophy,”  which was known as “libertarian and libertine arguments.” The main theme was, “Society was to blame.” As Mansnerus explained, “His causes — abortion rights, decriminalization of marijuana, and, most important, the repeal of 19th-century sex laws — were daring at the time. Ten years later, they would be unexceptional.”

Hefner knew the importance of freedom of speech, especially with a magazine like Playboy. “The Playboy Philosophy” not only supported freedom of speech, but progressive social causes at the time. He even lost certain sponsors when he made some of his televised parties inclusive to black people. But he won several civil liberties awards as well.

Playboy also became the platform for visionaries, politicians, activists and freedom fighters. This includes, but is not limited to, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Bertrand Russell, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov and many others.

In an interview with Hefner, Jimmy Carter conceded, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Playboy technically published the legendary novel “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, after buying it for $400. It’s ironic, considering Hefner’s first ever publisher’s message was, “We don’t expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths.”

Playboy, Going Forward

“As the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic to content production and the supply chain became clearer and clearer, we were forced to accelerate a conversation we’ve been having internally: the question of how to transform our US print product to better suit what consumers want today … [and] engage in a cultural conversation each and every day, rather than just every three months,” announced Ben Kohn, Playboy’s current CEO.

For a while now, Playboy has been releasing issues quarterly rather than monthly. They claim the coronavirus is what’s fast-tracking their decision to end publishing; however, all COVID-19 did was stop prolonging the inevitable.

As technology is becoming more of an ingrained part of society, many magazines are establishing their websites more vigorously — especially with COVID-19 among us and no definite end in sight.

Playboy itself has many challenges. After all, although they have had times of depth, the magazine is known for sex because everyone knows sex sells. At least, it used too.

Nowadays, there are free porn sites, explicit networks like Starz, HBO and Showtime, and media outlets such as Cosmopolitan and Refinery29 that embrace female sexuality without censorship. It was only a matter of time before Playboy ran its course.

A huge contribution to the decline of Playboy was the death of Hugh Hefner, the face of Playboy. Without him, Playboy went downhill, although it was already going in that direction. As previously said, Playboy wasn’t just a brand; it was a lifestyle, and anyone who knew about Playboy knew about the mansion and the parties.

Hefner portrayed this lifestyle of luxurious eternal bachelorhood. Sex, money, drugs and, most of all, freedom. Without him, it’s just sex for pay in a world where it can be accessed by the consumer anywhere. And most importantly, it’s free.

For Playboy to return as a prominent publication outlet, it’s going to have to pull out exceptional marketing stops to recapture this millennial audience. It will have to dig deeper than selling sexual fantasies in a generation where everything needs depth for acknowledgment.

It seems that the company died along with its founder. At least he was able to leave a legacy that impacted generations, and even though it isn’t on top of the world anymore, it is still irreplaceable.

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