The scene becomes more familiar with the appearance of "Hef," who greets visitors dressed in the black silk pajamas and red smoking jacket that are as much a part of the Playboy brand as the bunny-head logo.
At 71, the founder and chairman emeritus of Playboy Enterprises and editor in chief of flagship monthly Playboy is again making his presence felt at the company whose day-to-day management he turned over to daughter Christie after he suffered a stroke in 1985. And in an age when brands and globalization are marketing buzzwords, Mr. Hefner has a lot to say. He spoke at his home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles with Scott Donaton, executive editor of Advertising Age.
Advertising Age: I'm sure that Playboy being controversial was not a surprising thing to you in 1953, but are you surprised 44 years later to find the magazine remains controversial, particularly among mainstream advertisers?
Mr. Hefner: I don't think that anybody besides George Orwell, who predicted it to some extent in the novel "1984," could have predictedwhat happened to the views of sexuality in the 1980s. I don't think anybody could've anticipated that the sexual revolution, with the women's movement which was a part of it, would have within it an anti-sexual element. Playboy was less controversial in a very real way, I think, in the '50s and '60s than it became in the '80s. The notion that female liberation would not include sex and the images of sex . . . perhaps irony would be a kind word. It is simply Puritanism in another form. America remains a truly sexually Puritan culture that is very schizophrenic on the subject of sex, fascinated by it and at the same time guilt ridden. There are probably more mixed messages to the general public related to sex now than at any other time in the century.
AA: So when mainstream advertisers decline to place ads in a magazine that reaches millions of men each month is that a lack of backbone or a reflection of their sensitivity to consumer attitudes?
Mr. Hefner: I think part of it might be defined as that, but I think part of it is more subtle. Part of it is quite literally, and we know this is a fact, a reflection of female executives-and some male executives-who respond to that same kind of pressure. We know of a number of specific instances in which we would be on lists except that some women executives have problems with it.
Well, why would women executives have problems with Playboy, the most popular, most influential men's magazine of our time? The magazine that has quite literally changed the nature of the society in which we live. . . . More women than ever before have used Playboy to literally launch careers, so that you have the Pam Andersons and the Jenny McCarthys. You have women like Sharon Stone and Kim Basinger and other stars who regularly use the magazine as a career move.
And on the other hand, you have this strange discontent or ill-ease related to nude pictures. One of the things I tried to accomplish early on as a matter of fact was to make both sexes comfortable with the images-quite innocent images-of the naked body.
AA: Do you resent the advertising industry at all, or those elements of it that still won't support the magazine?
Mr. Hefner: No, no. I understand. I think it's foolish, because one of the things you get with a magazine is a specific audience. That's the thing that any magazine does best. The advertiser is able to aim specifically at who he wants. Well, no reader in the country or no magazine in the country has a higher following and support amongst its readership than Playboy. They identify with the magazine as a form of who they are, as a lifestyle.
The strength and power of the brand are proven over and over again. And there are people who, because of their own prejudices, think somehow that popularity and that power has been eroded. The reality is just the opposite. The brand is stronger now on a worldwide level than it has ever been. We are one of the largest men's fashion brands on the mainland of China, where the magazine is not even sold yet.
AA: Why are consumer boycotts seemingly effective with advertisers when most have been shown to have little impact on sales? Playboy has lost ads because of such boycotts, and we're seeing it now with the TV show "Nothing Sacred."
Mr. Hefner: That's just the history of advertisers. Traditionally, a single letter or two would make an advertiser take stock of their advertising campaign. Advertisers don't want controversy. But the reality is . . . if your customer reads Playboy, and if you are in that field, then you are foolish to not market. It's exactly the same as someone who might have a racial prejudice who doesn't want to go into Ebony.
AA: You don't run into controversies at the same level overseas. I believe General Motors, for example, is an advertiser in some international markets.
Mr. Hefner: Absolutely. The global market is so tremendously exciting for us right now. Frankly, we are as a company on the threshold of our greatest period of growth. While we've had to deal with an unfriendly political climate in the '80s and early '90s, the technology and the political change in climate abroad .*.*. have made the world a global village, which overcomes the other problems.
We're able to go to the actual marketplace through the Internet, through video, through television.
AA: Does the core monthly magazine remain relevant today? It seems most of the growth is being driven by other areas of the company.
Mr. Hefner: The magazine will always be the heart and soul of the company. But I don't know that it is possible to ever imagine the magazine to be more relevant than it was in a period in the '50s and '60s when it literally changed the sexual climate of the country and of the world.
It's quite impossible, and inappropriate, to compare anything to a different time. When people talk about the fact that Playboy had a circulation of 7 million in the early '70s and about 3.2 million now, it's a meaningless comparison. There was no videotape in those days. The reality is that fewer people are reading magazines, or reading anything.
AA: Is there a double standard for women's magazines? Cosmopolitan may not have nudity, but it has very frank sexual discussions. Yet it isn't as controversial.
Mr. Hefner: No question there's a double standard. Cosmopolitan is simply a female version of Playboy. That's what Helen Gurley Brown created, and said so. And we helped her do it.
AA: Why didn't you do it?
Mr. Hefner: As a matter of fact, she came to me before she went to Hearst, and we had just started a show-business magazine that had cost more to launch than I was prepared for and so we were in the process of recovering from that and I was just not in a place to really start a magazine.
AA: What would happen if Playboy dropped the nudity? What if you decided to make it a smaller-circulation, general-interest men's magazine?
Mr. Hefner: I think of it as exactly that. And it would be an incredible hypocrisy to leave out the one thing that mainstream men are most interested in. My feeling from the very beginning was not that we were creating a sex magazine. It's a magazine the focus of which is a romantic relationship between a man and woman [and] the lifestyle surrounding it.
When a magazine starts to become uncertain as to who they are-that's what you see with Esquire and other magazines, as well-you lose your identity. What would one prove by taking the nudes out? Would we reach advertisers? Yes. But that's just making money. My motivation has never been just making money. I have lived my life for a very specific purpose with-from my perspective-a tremendous success. I wanted to make a difference and I've made it. It isn't just another magazine. It is, in the men's field, the magazine and maybe even a little something more than that. Entire generations grew up with this magazine and they remember as if it was a first love those first centerfolds, those first images, those covers and specific features.
AA: The company has passed up opportunities to publish other men's magazines, such as Men's Life and Max. Earlier, there were other titles on the drawing board, including a crime concept. Why did this company decide to remain essentially a single-title publisher?
Mr. Hefner: Primarily because the strength of the image and of the mark is so powerful that we've managed to get more out of expanding vertically instead of horizontally. There has been extension in other areas that complement us very much.
AA: Do you regret not doing Cosmo?
Mr. Hefner: I certainly think that would've been one that would've made a lot of sense. And I kind of wish I would've stayed with Show Business Illustrated. Show Business Illustrated is Entertainment Weekly.
AA: How important will the magazine's electronic extensions be to its future?
Mr. Hefner: Very important. That and television. These are simply delivery systems . . . instead of paper and ink, you're sending your message through the air or through videotape and it also means that you have direct access to the customer so that it eliminates that political problem.
You get communication now around the world and similar aspirations. What we used to call the American dream has become a
worldwide dream. And Playboy is a very real part of that. It is the part that the rest of the world responds to in the most positive way related to America. The notion of personal, political and economic freedom. That's why the mark is real popular in China in clothing even though the magazine is not allowed there. That's why when the students were revolting in China, the signs they were carrying were in English. For television, for CNN.
AA: Despite all the controversies, Playboy has clearly been successful in terms of building a brand identity, extending that into other areas-ranging from cigars to condoms and jazz festivals-and taking that brand across borders. What are the keys to building a global brand?
Mr. Hefner: We put the emphasis on the brand rather than simply going into other publications, and what we managed to do is make that mark one of the single most famous in the world and give it a cachet that is without any real competition. There is no other sophisticated, sexually oriented label.
So when we talk about the power of the brand, we haven't even begun to tap into the possibilities. The expansion possibilities in terms of Asia, Third World countries, it's unbelieveable.
AA: What does Playboy stand for as a brand?
Mr. Hefner: It represents a sense of personal freedom and economic freedom, but has a kind of sophisticated, sexually liberated cachet. Just the kind of cachet that one looks for to move everything from a men's cologne to cars to clothing. It's being physically attractive and particularly attracted to the opposite sex, and it's what drives advertising. We're talking about the center of the target here.
AA: Into what new areas would you like to extend the brand? I've heard you've looked at theme restaurants. Could that work?
Mr. Hefner: Yes. I think so. [Also,] we're going to be back in the casino business. I think on-site operations have a great value for us. One of the things that we got out of the club phenomenon-it wasn't simply what the clubs were doing, but the cachet had played back on the rest of what we were doing in the magazine. It helped tremendously in terms of the sale of advertising.
AA: There's been a lot of controversy lately about advertisers demanding an early look at the contents of a magazine to be sure it's an appropriate environment for their ads. How dangerous is that trend?
Mr. Hefner: Very dangerous. Completely unacceptable.
AA: There was controversy surrounding your use of a French-door gatefold cover ad with the October issue. You were quoted calling it a nice innovation, but the American Society of Magazine Editors criticized the ad and one fellow editor said splitting the cover was like "cutting your own face." How do you react to that?
Mr. Hefner: I understand that feeling and we will not do it again. I felt quite frankly that at that particular moment, it would make a statement in terms of Playboy as an advertising vehicle. The particular ad actually complemented the French doors, so that when you opened it you got something that looked almost like editorial. So I understand the argument.
I think Elle did it once and regretted it. I don't know if we regret it or not, but we're not going to do it again.
AA: How do you personally stay in touch with popular culture?
Mr. Hefner: Well, the media by and large. A long time ago, I had a reputation for being a recluse, which was never accurate. It was never accurate . . . because I was never alone. [There were] a great many people there with me. It was just a controlled environment. You don't really find out a great deal about what's really going on there in the outer world by simply going out at night and eating in a restaurant. You find out what's going on by paying attention to the media. You know, all of those forms of communication are at my fingertips here.
AA: Somebody told me that you have commercials edited out of TV programs before you watch them?
Mr. Hefner: True. I do see some, because I watch some live TV, too.
AA: Do you not think they reflect the popular culture?
Mr. Hefner: Sure. Yes. I wouldn't say they carry many messages or tell you much about the future. They simply tell you additionally clever ways to sell the product.
AA: What lessons do you think there are in the success Playboy has had as a global brand that other marketers can learn?
Mr. Hefner: What Playboy has managed to do is simply an example of something that I think anybody who is interested in these particular areas understands, which is that it has to be finely focused, something that is readily understood, a message that is simple enough and clear enough and has sufficient appeal so that it becomes a part of the consciousness.
AA: Yet there's still a stigma attached to this magazine. I can't take it out and read it during my train ride home.
Mr. Hefner: The very notion that a Playmate image, this innocent erotic image, should be perceived as somehow harrassment or poor taste is a bizarre attitude, and the fact that [such attitudes are] embraced by any portion of the thinking part of the society . . . should be an embarrassment. It is a former prejudice that reflects, by and large, stupidity. It is celebration of sexuality in a heterosexual context.
AA: Do you think the same thing applies to magazines like Penthouse?
Mr. Hefner: Penthouse is now hard-core. One of the greatest things that I've had to face as a problem [was that] throughout the '50s and '60s, Playboy had no competition. We had many imitators, but no competition. With Penthouse, followed by Hustler, we became not simply the men's magazine that happened to have some nude pictures in it. We became the top end of a line or genre of publications and we were judged then by that line. And you know, for a time, Penthouse attempted to sort of become a pseudo-Playboy and indeed did a very good job of getting the media to connect the two magazines. And of course that was intentional. Guccione chose the name Penthouse because it was a name closely associated with Playboy. We had a magazine called Playboy's Penthouse. But in the more recent past, the magazine is so completely separated from Playboy. [Penthouse] gets almost no real advertising anymore. It's a hard-core publication.
AA: What are you most proud of as you look back on 40-plus years?
Mr. Hefner: Hard to think of anything that's any more important than to change the social sexual values of our time. And that is what I take great pride in.
With all of the controversy that exists still surrounding sexual imagery, the comfort level related to human sexuality and the communication and education . . . it's a different world than it was in the '50s and '60s. People can live