Monday, December 21, 2009

Whither Playboy?

The first "double issue": July/August 2009

For the second time in less than a year Playboy has missed a month. The struggling magazine produced what they called a "double issue" for July/August this year and now the first issue of 2010 is another combined January/February effort. You do at least get two Playmate centrefolds rather than the twins in the summer issue.

The Playboy Empire is in trouble, as it has been off on on for over 25 years. From 1982 until 1994 Playboy, despite some good years, lost, on average, $6 million a year. The last time there was such a financial crisis it was caused by the loss of gaming licences from Playboy casinos in London and Atlantic City.
The current problems are blamed on a number of factors but despite its parlous financial performance investors are still looking to buy the ailing company. The most recent talks, with adult publisher Iconix Brand Management, recently collapsed partly, it is rumoured, over what role 83 year old publisher Hugh Hefner would have. He still owns 70% of the Playboy voting stock so his influence is still enormous.

There is a difference between the Playboy brand (including enterprises such as clothing and gift items) and the magazine, of course. Investors are more interested in the potential of the brand and its iconic rabbit-headed logo than the ailing magazine and indeed, some investors in the US are trying to distance themselves from the naked women aspect of Playboy (which is still quite frightening in the conservative US).

Recently, for example, there have been talks between Playboy and the also struggling but once trendy Sagamore Hotel in South Beach, Miami. The idea is to open a Playboy bar in the hotel similar to the successful one opened a few years ago in the Pams casino in Las Vegas.

The Playboy clubs had been key to the financial success of Playboy since the first one opened in Chicago in 1961. Dozens opened in the US and around the world but then, as Playboy ran into financial trouble, they were gradually sold off; the last US club closing in 1988 and the last international club, in Japan, closing in 1991.

Now, however, it is the potential for a Playboy franchised nightclub or clothing line that has buyers interested. When Hefner's daughter Christie took over the management of the empire in 1982 she built Playboy Enterprises up into an intermittently successful brand diversifying into areas such as clothing. Recently, however, even this has had problems. Here in the UK there was a big campaign criticising stationers, WH Smith, for selling Playboy branded pencil cases and folders obviously aimed at young girls. The Playboy store on Oxford street, down the road from Agent Triple P's office, which sold clothing and other goods, largely aimed at women, has recently closed.

Last year Playboy sold off their loss-making DVD firm. Playboy DVDs were useless. Neither hardcore enough to compete in that market nor offering enough artistic content for those who wanted some tease and tantalisation from their women.

Generally, the feeling is that Playboy has been one of the worst managed brands in history; given the instant recognition factor of its name and logo; hence the circling potential buyers.

All of this is well and good but where does it leave the magazine which started it all? Playboy today is a dreadful magazine; a shadow of its former self. Under attack from the British invasion of FHM (which went to the US in 2000) and, particularly Maxim (which started a US edition in 1997 and even now sells 2.5 million copies a month there) Playboy quickly became more "laddish", as did its original inspiration Esquire. Eventually Playboy even hired an ex-Maxim veteran, James Kaminsky, to take charge of the magazine. Now, however, the honeymoon is over for FHM and it has stopped printing in the US. Maxim, whilst hanging on in the US is no longer a print publication in the UK. Online editions are where they have migrated to. Playboy has an online edition which is currently a bargain $12 per year. However, for someone of Triple P's generation there is no substitute for an actual magazine which you can read where you like, rather than being stuck in front of a screen.

All magazines are struggling at present and the view is that pornographic magagazines are struggling more than most because of the ubiquity of internet porn. That is all very well, but Playboy was never a pornographic magazine.

Its pictorial content was always a very small part of a magazine full of genuinely high quality articles, stories and interviews. People really did buy the magazine for the articles! When actually pushed into competing in explicitness of photography, as it was during the famous Pubic Wars of the early seventies, Playboy very quickly backed down as that was not what it was about.

The real problem with the magazine now is that it doesn't know what it is. It's not a pornographic magazine like Penthouse (which is not now as explicit as it was ten years ago) and instead has tried to hunt in the waters latterly inhabited by FHM and Maxim.

Agent Triple P has a suggestion or two about how to change the magazine for the better. Playboy, like much of the mass media, is fixated on the 18-35 demographic, which was certainly the target of the original magazine back in the Fifties. However the world has changed fundamentally since then.

Very few people seem to recognise this. One who does was being interviewed on TV here recently. Disc jockey Chris Evans, who has made enough money by being able to judge the public taste to buy the world's most expensive car last year, is taking over the hallowed BBC Radio 2 breakfast show from septuganarian Terry Wogan. How will all of Wogan's older listners cope with Chris Evans choice in music, wails the Daily Mail? Evans pointed out that teenagers in the sixties, when pop music really took off, were now in their sixties. These people were part of a generation that has continued to listen to pop and rock music, go to the latest films and not dress like old people as those from just the previous generation did.

Agent Triple P's aunt was born in 1945. She is aproaching 65. She does not look, act, dress or think like what our generation's idea of an old person should be like. Most people in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties now dress the same way, like the same things and have the same attitudes towards sex. If anything the older ones are more likely to be liberal in this area than the younger generation. Yet this generation is largely ignored by the media.

So why is Playboy chasing a sub thirty-five audience? Where is the men's magazine for someone of Triple P's age? Men in their forties, fifties and sixties are more interested in good writing than the younger soundbite/internet post generation. They have more disposable income and are much more likely to spend on luxury items. They are still as interested in sex and still like looking at pictures of beautiful naked women.

On this latter point, however, there is a big disconnect between the visual images presented to them and what they were brought up to expect from erotic photographs. The average Playboy Playmate today has probably got a silicone bust (a big turn-off for most men of Triple P's generation), is photoshopped so much that her skin looks like she has been embalmed in morticians' wax and has no pubic hair whatsoever. This means that she does not look anyhing like the wife or girlfriend of the older reader and that older reader does expect some form of connection between his fantasy woman and the reality in his bed.

Furthermore, he lived through the Pubic Wars when a girls bush and, latterly what was concealed beneath it, became the prime focus of erogenous zones in print (after decades of the bust). The gradual revelation (in every way) of women's pubic hair and then their labia gave a tease value to pictorials from the seventies that just isn't there on today's nude models. The presentation of women with totally smooth pubic areas also introduces a rather strange girl/woman image that further alienates the older reader. He doesn't want to see a forty year old nude but he doesn't want to see one who looks like his teenage daughter either.

So, as it creaks towards its sixtieth anniversary in 2013 is there any way to save this venerable institution? Agent Triple P has a number of suggestions.

1 Aim it at the thirties to sixties market. Stop chasing teenagers. They have a very limited outlook on the world and very narrow tastes. Basically the world has always been the same to them and they have no interest in previous times. For someone of Triple P's age nostalgia is becoming more important. Mostly this is a nostalgia fro a period when we were younger. Oddly, however, some of it is nostalgia for a period whch we didn't even experience such as the fifties. This is because it is what we could call referred nostalgia picked up from old films, music or even the recollections of family.

2 Improve the written content. Playboy was a first class magazine in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Get some proper writers in again. Older readers will read the articles. They, don't, however, want to read about rap stars, club DJs, getting drunk in beach resorts, or street fashion.

3 Cut down on the photoshopping in the pictorials. Digital manipulation of photographs has generated a bizarre alternative reality which is a parody of perfection. Get some proper, atmospheric lighting in again rather than the bright day-glo approach being used at present.

4 Photograph women who have pubic hair. They do exist, especially in Europe. Get models who look like young women not pubescent girls.

5 No girls with plastic busts. Ever. Make a stand. A successful picture of a naked woman should project a tactile response in the viewer. Silicone tits do not do this.

Argh! Too much text! The current edition of Playboy

6 Sort out the covers. Playboy has had some of the most striking covers in magazine history. Now they are horribly overwhelmed with uneccesary text screaming out at you over a dull photograph of a semi-celebrity. One striking picture is worth dozens of words. look at the fine examples from Playboy's past in this post. Less is more.

7 Sort out the distribution. If Triple P wanted to go out and buy a copy of Playboy now in London he wouldn't know where to go. WH Smiths, our major magazine retailer, doesn't stock Playboy even though it stocks lesser mens magazines (although only in stations and airports).

So, things look bleak for Playboy. magazine. The value of the brand now has nothing to do with the magazine that generated it. Those who have plans for Playboy clubs, digital media and other goods will, no doubt, be aiming at the same 18-35 demographic as currently. Interestingly, one of the 11 groups looking to buy Playboy (which is currently being valued at what is regarded as a somewhat over-inflated $300 million) is Richard Branson. Triple P thinks that he, rather than an asset stripping corpration, might just be the sort of man to turn the brand around. He, like Hefner, has built his brand on the back of personal, charismatic leadership and not a bland corporate approach.

So, we shall have to see what the future holds for this iconic and influential entity. Whatever happens it is likely to be quite soon.