When Playboy Made It Big

Playboy magazine used to be the contraband men of all ages hid in their sock drawers. Now it might as well be another pair of socks


Playboy magazine used to be the contraband men of all ages hid in their sock drawers. Now it might as well be another pair of socks.

It's hard to get excited by a nudie magazine anymore—especially one without any nudes. Since March 2016, Playboy no longer features naked ladies, which is kind of like Hershey's still selling almonds without the chocolate.

But props where props are due: It's unlikely we would be as blasé as we are today about sex, porn, and even women's lib if it weren't for Hugh Hefner and his crazy 1953 creation.

Hef was a frustrated cartoonist at the time, working in the Esquire subscription department because that was the closest he could get to the world of publishing. When his request for a $5 a week raise got turned down, he decided to strike out on his own. Somehow he pulled together $10,000 and prepared to launch a racy new magazine: Stag.

Fortunately for him, the name was already taken. So instead he called it Playboy. The first edition featured a centerfold (a word we wouldn't even have without him!) dubbed "Sweetheart of the Month." In the very next issue, the sweetheart was rechristened a "Playmate." As the author Julie Keller has mused, "There is a vast ideological gap between the words."

There sure is. The former harkened back to Mary Pickford, courtship, a-settin' on the velveteen settee. The latter is someone you play with. It's fun, but it's not forever.

Thus began the smashing of taboos.

The genius of Playboy was not that it published naked young ladies. There were other ways to get your grubby paws on those pictures even then. As Time noted in a cover story on Hefner at the height of his career—1972, when his magazine was selling 7 million copies a month—"He took the old-fashioned, shame-thumbed girlie magazine, stripped off the plain wrapper, added gloss, class and culture."

As its subscriber base grew, so did Playboy's reputation as a purveyor of taste. It showcased some of the best writers around: Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates. Its interviews were so candid and surprising that they often made news, as when Jimmy Carter admitted that he had "lusted in his heart" or Martin Luther King Jr. told interviewer Alex Haley about the first time he experienced racism.

So, yes, you really could read Playboy just for the articles. Then again, you could read The New York Review of Books for the same thing. Did you?

The writing not only provided gentlemen with an excuse to subscribe, it helped change the entire perception of nonmarital sex, from dark, dirty doings with prostitutes to a sophisticated pastime men pursued with willing women of their own class. This, of course, required willing women. And that required a revolution.

Hefner himself has said he was a feminist before it was cool. Exactly how feminist is a question for the gender studies classes. Sure, he "objectified" women's bodies. But he also supported birth control (he had to), premarital sex (ditto), and sexual pleasure for both partners (why not?). He got behind the Equal Rights Amendment, and he clearly believed in women in the workforce—he hired hundreds of them to be bunnies.

Ironically, one thing he did not seem to like was real, earthy sexiness. Peter Bloch, a former editor at Penthouse, recalls getting Playboy every month, "opening it up with great anticipation and always being disappointed. Because the girls were very cute, but they were photoshopped and in weird poses. Any woman I saw walking down the street seemed more sexy."

It's possible that's because Hefner wasn't really selling sex. He was selling lifestyle. The women were simply part of a modern man's lair, along with a wet bar and a hi-fi. That's why Hef made sure all the advertising was aspirational. Howard Lederer, then the magazine's ad director, told Time in 1972: "We create a euphoria and we want nothing to spoil it. We don't want a reader to suddenly come on an ad that says he has bad breath. We don't want him to be reminded of the fact, though it may be true, that he is going bald."

Martin Pazzani was a brand manager at Smirnoff Vodka back in Playboy's heyday. "We spent tens of millions" on ads, he recalls. Today, he is CEO of Tears of Llorona, a premium Tequila company. He doesn't advertise in Playboy—in fact, he doesn't advertise in magazines at all.

That's part one of the one-two punch that knocked the wind out of Playboy. "The internet was a problem for just about every existing media enterprise," says Nat Ives, executive editor of Advertising Age. But of course, the internet provided more than just a new ad medium. It provided more porn than the Playmates could ever hope to. "Playboy changed the landscape, and then vice versa," as pop culture historian Robert Thompson puts it.

Today the bunny logo, once so titillating, looks like something from a '70s time capsule. It has aged as inexorably as Hefner himself. But because it's still one of the most recognizable brands on earth, publicist Richard Laermer came up with perhaps the best possible idea for it: Open a Playboy museum.

Do it in Vegas. Showcase the man, the mansion, the magazine. Trace their trajectory across the times they changed. Fill the gift shop with Playboy overstock—mugs, sunglasses, keychains. And in the café, who's serving the Heffacino?

Bunnies! Male, female, and genderfluid. Just like that, Playboy goes from creaky to cheeky—a thing to be celebrated for its place in American history, not just its place in the sock drawer.