A Requiem for Playboy in Its Heyday (Nudes and All)

As Iconic Magazine Prepares to Get Less Fleshy, a Tribute to Its Place in Culture

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Credit: Playboy

It's hard to overstate just how much Playboy changed American culture. Not just sexual culture -- as even some of those too young to remember tend to know implicitly -- but media culture, journalistic culture, literary culture, pop culture. That's worth keeping in mind given that Playboy announced on Monday that, effective with its March 2016 issue, it's eliminating nude photos of women, with founder Hugh Hefner's blessing.

So the old bit about men saying "I read it for the articles" to justify why they bought Playboy? The plan is to make that, well, mandatory.

Honestly, though, a lot of men (and women) really did read it for the articles. As one of the leading outlets for literary fiction for decades, Playboy published a Who's Who of letters, including John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, Nadine Gordimer, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow. Its in-depth "Playboy Interview" was a forum for smart conversations with everyone from Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan to Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter -- the last famously telling the magazine during his 1976 run for president that "I've committed adultery in my heart many times." (Even my conservative Catholic father bought that issue, as I found out years later; it turned up buried in a box of his stuff after his death.)

As one of the great American magazines during the glossy heyday, Playboy was not only a must-read for the modern man (circulation at its peak was more than 5 million), it absolutely transcended print. Playboy wasn't just a magazine, it was a movement.

With its low-high mix of ribald and brainy diversions, Playboy had an aura about it that allowed Mr. Hefner to pioneer in brand marketing (the iconic bunny logo), event marketing (think of the decades of free earned media from all those celebrity-packed parties at the Playboy Mansion), and lifestyle marketing (if you were a Playboy reader, you were buying into a certain free-spirited, worldly mindset).

Playboy, even as it lost its central position in the Zeitgeist over the years, remained a very good magazine. I have friends and colleagues who worked at, and wrote for, Playboy (and I even contributed a feature story once -- about all-time great literary feuds; e.g., Norman Mailer vs. Tom Wolfe).

That said, it became incredibly difficult to appreciate the great stuff in the magazine largely because, well, Hugh Hefner's taste in women got so damn weird. Whereas he once championed a certain sort of untamed beauty (think Marilyn Monroe in the very first issue, December 1953), over time he turned the magazine into, basically, a stroke book for Photoshop fetishists. To gaze at the typical Playboy pinup -- a surgically and digitally altered simulacra of femininity -- was to enter Uncanny Valley.

Everybody at Playboy seemed to know that -- except Hef.

In December 2013, Playboy sponsored a one-day Ad Age "Marketing to Men" conference at which Hef's son, Cooper, then 22, spoke about how "getting into the family business was an interesting road, to say the least." A Playboy-sponsored write-up of the event noted that,

In deciding if he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps as he entered college, Mr. Hefner said that he poured over his father's meticulously kept scrapbooks -- some 2,500 volumes of correspondence, photographs and other historic materials from the Playboy archives.

"I was simply blown away by what I found," said Mr. Hefner. He came across photos of John Lennon, Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger at the Playboy Mansion, and read letters to his dad from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Ronald Reagan, opening his eyes to the extent to which Playboy had intersected with modern cultural and political history.

Revisiting Playboy's past, said Mr. Hefner, clinched his decision to help move the Playboy brand into the future: "Re-introducing a rabbit that stood for something more -- stood for something important -- became my goal."

So what does the Playboy rabbit stand for today, minus the naked ladies?

We're about to find out.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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