This is how Playboy Chief Executive Officer Scott Flanders explained the decision to drop nudity to The New York Times in October 2015. Just over a year later, the magazine’s non-nude policy has itself become passé, evidently.
“I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but removing it entirely was a mistake,” tweeted Cooper Hefner, the magazine’s Chief Creative Officer and son of its founder, Hugh Hefner. “Nudity was never the problem, because nudity isn’t a problem. Today we’re taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are.”
While the policy reversal will certainly come as welcome news to those Playboy readers and subscribers who never liked the non-nude approach to begin with, a trickier question is whether it matters, one way or the other, when it comes to reviving the magazine’s sales numbers or further extending the Playboy brand.
In recent decades, it has been Playboy’s branding and licensing divisions that have sustained the company, much more so than direct sales of the magazine. While newsstand sales of the magazine initially spiked following the change in content policy, there was a simultaneous drop in the number of subscribers — a revenue source which, by its very nature, is more valuable than newsstand sales, in large part because of its relative stability and predictability.
In explaining the return to nude depictions, Hefner said the decision was driven in part by changes he has observed in the American socio-political sphere.
“I proudly write of these collective accomplishments as I identify that together we elected our first mixed-race president, we took gay rights to the Supreme Court and witnessed it rule in favor of same-sex marriage, we began walking down the road to marijuana legalization, and we watched the first woman become a major political party’s nominee for president,” Hefner wrote in a post on the Playboy website. “Those were just a few of the cultural wins we’ve relished. But after so much progress, our hard-won victories are in peril. Just as the social and political pendulum had swung in liberals’ favor, as history has shown time after time, the pendulum swings back.”
— Cooper Hefner (@cooperhefner) February 13, 2017
As mission statement-like proclamations from adult entertainment companies go, Hefner’s is a high-minded rationale. To hear him tell it, Playboy almost sounds poised to transform into buxom, bleach-blonde Mother Jones.
“At this point in history, the most vital intellectual discussion we can have is how to create a society that’s as free as possible without ignoring the social and economic implications of our policy decisions,” Hefner wrote. “We need to identify who our allies are at a time when, on the liberal side, a culture of political correctness discourages debate that may hurt people’s feelings and, on the conservative side, politicians seem comfortable jeopardizing the rights of specific groups in the belief that it will ‘make America great again.’”
In his post, Hefner also extols the magazine’s history of fighting McCarthyism and advocating for the LGBTQ community “when society had abandoned or, worse, aggressively gone on the attack against it,” making clear his vision for the publication to be an important and relevant voice in the realm of politics and public policy, not merely a “lifestyle magazine,” as it has long been described.
Over the years, in addition to countless nude photospreads, Playboy has published enough serious, high-quality articles and interviews to take much of the joke out of the old line, “I only read it for the articles.” Whether reemphasizing this aspect of the magazine’s offerings will be enough to recapture significant market share is another question altogether, of course.
At least one of Playboy’s longtime competitors thinks the brand’s business-goose may be cooked, regardless of its content policies or editorial approach.
“Playboy is no longer an appropriate channel for sex and sex advice, and nobody today refers to themselves as a Playboy man — the designation no longer exists,” said Hustler founder Larry Flynt in an interview conducted when Playboy first announced its non-nude policy. “It had a great life, a healthy life, and it served a great role, but we should recognize that everything has a life cycle.”