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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.

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  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The one thing few people other than totally overboard Feminists seem to recognize is that The Playboy Philosophy (tm) was (and is) seriously creepy. Go back and read some of it if you don't believe me. I really really hate to agree with Feminist scolds on anything, but regarding Hefner they have a point. He was a creep. He only got creepier as he got older.

    Where the Feminists fall down is that they want to protect young women from the creepiness (let's face it, they want to protect themselves from the competition). Multiple books exist showing that young women flocked to Playboy, let Hefner and his customers ogle away, and leveraged the creepiness into solid careers later on.

    Porn IS creepy. I say that as one who looks regularly and enthusiasticly. But so long as it is also LEGAL it is often not about men taking advantage of women, but about women pretending to be taken advantage of while charging all the market will bear.

  • John C. Randolph||

    He was a creep.

    Fuck you. Hef was a great man.

    -jcr

  • Jacob Oost||

    I mostly agree. Many ex-porn actresses will tell you that while they entered the profession willingly they were often subject to coercion and drug dependency, perhaps in ways that breaks the law, perhaps not, but still as immoral as you'd expect from that business.

  • Diane Merriam||

    Way back when (late 70's), when I was working on a mostly male installation crew, someone put up a Playboy centerfold in the break room. The next morning I came in extra early and put a Playgirl centerfold right next to it and then just sat quietly back in the corner to watch. The guys thought it was great, although no one knew who put it up (being a mostly quiet hard worker made me an unlikely suspect for the speculation). What was really funny though, was the reaction of the few other women. Most seemed a little embarrassed, but there was one who hadn't freaked out with the Playboy pinup, but once that Playgirl pinup was there, pretended that wall didn't even exist for the next few days until they both came down. She would turn her head one way going past it to the back and the other way coming out.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Please, please, define creepy for me.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Like porn "you know it when you see it".

  • Michael Hihn||

    Sexist rant. Ignores the Playboy Philosophy --a rather lengthy series, largely libertarian, with infinitely greater readership ... especially for one of the most thorough Ayn Rand interviews
    .
    Laugh as you will, but most guys spent maybe 5 minutes on the centerfolds and well over an hour with "the articles."
    It's called clever marketing. So it's Lenore who's fixated on the sexuality here.

    There's no widely accepted antonym for misogyny in politically correct America.
    Women can never be sexist, for the same self-evident reason than it's impossible for blacks to be racist.

    By the way, those naked bimbos enabled all those great writers to get paid a lot more -- incomes derived by exploiting women, by definition.

  • Nuwanda||

    It's true. Penthouse featured raunchier images but the articles and other content was mostly excellent. They were quality publications far above the run of the mill smut rags.

  • Michael Hihn||

    I was there. You're correct. But I actually preferred the Playmates.
    When I was ith a woman, I've never said, "Show me your pussy, and it better have hair!"

  • Ron||

    Playboy was the Sharper image catalog of its day

  • jjsaz||

    Male Bunnies? Genderfluid Bunnies? Now that's creepy!

    Most everyone wants to look at scantily clad (or less) women. Playgirl died long before Playboy declined because their readership (gay men) didn't need it anymore. Women read Playboy. Men read Playboy. Social festive and feminist influence forced the playmates out of its pages, but they had to come back. The death of magazines, in general, led to its decline, but I can't imagine a fate nearly so foul as going to a museum and being sold a latte by a tranny barista!

  • Diane Merriam||

    Excuse me??? I had a subscription to Playgirl and shared it with several other women as well.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Breastraunts are a thing. There is no male equivalent because there is no demand.

  • Brother Kyfho||

    That's because males are valued for behavioral traits over genetic ones.

    therationalmale.com

  • PlaystoomuchHALO||

    I commonly joke that Hefner has been dead since the late 80's, and they merely defrost him for public appearances on a regular basis.

    In reality he's been stuck in the 1940's his entire adult life and stopped being relevant once more daring magazines surfaced. Penthouse immediately stole away a massive amount of his subscriber base just by doing something Hef refused to do because he apparently personally found repulsive and immoral: showing pubic hair and vaginas. The Playboy commericial enterprise has been declining ever since, only to be partially restored when Hef himself was not making the decisions.

    Hef's ideas of acceptable female nudity stopped and bare butts and nipples, he was well known for cheating on all his girlfriends, and apparently his journal details how he banged a friend of his daughter at her 16th birthday party. Hef was in his 40's at the time.

  • Michael Hihn||

    Penthouse immediately stole away a massive amount of his subscriber base just by doing something Hef refused to do because he apparently personally found repulsive and immoral: showing pubic hair and vaginas

    Thanks. You've just insulted men even more than Lenore did.

  • Radioactive||

    more Ford v Chevy kind of argument here...especially if you like hair on your Chevy...

  • Radioactive||

    "...apparently his journal details how he banged a friend of his daughter at her 16th birthday party. Hef was in his 40's at the time..." slow applause rising to resounding standing ovation and riotous hazzaahzas...

  • John C. Randolph||

    Since March 2016, Playboy no longer features naked ladies

    A perfect example of the idiocy of letting women run a men's magazine.

    -jcr

  • Brother Kyfho||

    His son is the one that made that decision. Christy Hefner retired from the magazine several years ago.

  • NoVaNick||

    I lost interest in Playboy once the models started being bare down there and you couldn't really distinguish them from Barbies.

  • Thomas O.||

    And when was the deadline for this piece, Lenore? It was about a month ago that Playboy announced the nudes were coming back...

  • Ron||

    "This, of course, required willing women"

    the women were always willing they were just more discrete about it. thats why i always laugh when they do studies showing how men cheat more than the women do. Who do they think the men are cheating with, why cheating women of course. hence why statistics are so useless

  • Brother Kyfho||

    You may enjoy the work at therationalmale.com

  • macsnafu||

    I admit it. When I was growing up in the 70s, I'd often sneak a peek at my father's Playboy collection that he had hidden away in a closet. And of course I looked at the pictures, but being a compulsive reader even at a young age, I ended up reading the articles and the cartoons, and the advertising, and just about everything in the magazine.

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