'The classiest out of the bunch' — what I learned on the hunt for the new no-nudity Playboy

Back in the mid-late 1970s, there were two fairly reliable ways to find a Playboy magazine in suburban Minneapolis. The first was at the barber shop next to the gas station where gentlemen read the magazine for “the articles,” though I once wondered what kind of articles needed to be read diagonally and with an extra page flopping out of the bottom. The second was not quite as easy, but more adventurous. One would go into the woods with a couple of friends, find the empty fifth of off-brand gin, walk within around a 60 yard radius, and voila. Some days you’d find it in a snap — other days, it would be virtually impossible.

The latter is what I encountered after being assigned to review Playboy — it would prove to be easier finding a rabbi at a ham convention than procuring the new, revamped, first non-nude version of the magazine.

The usual staple of finding these “kinds” of magazines was the convenience store. Both the local (Plaid Pantry, in Portland, Oregon) and national (7-11) shops didn’t really even have magazines anymore, let alone Playboy — something I didn’t even notice until I was actively seeking out a magazine in the first place.

At my local grocery store, there were plenty of magazines, including Gun and Sniper (those are two separate titles, not the firearm equivalent of Horse and Hound), but no Playboy.

“They still make that magazine?” asked the female clerk, who I would tab at around my age — early/mid 40s.

Me: “Yes. And there’s no nudity anymore.”

She (after awkward pause): “Really? That’s too bad. That was the classiest out of the bunch. And no, we don’t carry those kinds of magazines.”

Me: (no real reaction) “Right.”

She (her words, not mine): “I hate to say it, but try the Chinese store.”

I’m not entirely sure what the "Chinese store” is but I can only assume it was the independent convenience store that happened to be owned by an Asian family (yay, American cultural understanding).

No luck there (the owners were from Mexico, by the way), or at four more places.

A few miles up the road, I was convinced that I would find it at the adult bookstore (that I may or may not have done any copywriting for many years ago). Brief aside — there’s something very unsettling about walking into a porn shop in broad daylight. What’s even creepier was the man who held the door open for me.

“Do you have Playboy?” I asked the young (Millennial!!) woman behind the counter.

“Yes, we do.”

“Great. So you have the new one?”

With a laugh, “Oh no, we stopped ordering it after we found out that they were taking the nudity out.”

So, to recap.

I had gone to seven places to find a magazine.

Convenience stores didn’t carry it — or many magazines at all.

The more conservative grocery store didn’t carry it, because, even though there was no nudity, it was still considered a “nudie” mag to them. But, apparently, gun magazines are fine.

The not very conservative porn shop didn’t carry it because it was deemed too tame for the, um, er, that crowd.

I did manage to find the new issue at Rich’s, the (excellent) cigar store in Portland’s Pearl District — and, apparently, they know exactly how to merchandise it. It’s no longer wrapped in plastic, sitting in the top left corner of the rack next to Hustler. It’s now near the publications you’d see in your room at The Sanderson or Ace Hotel. When I asked the (Millennial!!) clerk what he thought, he said, “it’s pretty good. Not what I had expected, but I kind of liked it.” I appreciated that honesty. And he was right. It’s certainly not erotica. I wouldn’t even characterize it is a “lad mag.”

It feels like a weird time for the title itself. Playboy is now a vestige of an earlier time, making an effort to recalibrate to the younger set and is, on the front line of retail, mischaracterized or, rather, still saddled with the stigma of its past, no matter what attempts are made to change the mindset.

Herein lies the conundrum of what Playboy was, is and endeavors to be. There was no thunderclap moment from the clerk at Rich's of “wow, this is revolutionary!” It was more like, “huh, this is interesting.” And for the new target audience (Millennials!!) to react with an overwhelming “meh” does not bode well for its prospects.

This may prove to be an overly reductive way to describe it, but the new Playboy feels like GQ, Wired (especially the design), Details, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone decided to have a 126-page party. In fact, Theo Wenner, son of Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner, shot the Sarah McDaniel feature (she of Snapchat and Instagram fame) so there are some seeming parallels to the observation.

The Rachel Maddow and Broad City interviews were excellent. The James Franco-led interview with The Wire creator, David Simon, was interesting. The first-person piece by Javier Valadez on his deportation from Texas (after 15 years in the US) to Mexico was engaging. But I was half waiting for a Matt Taibbi article to show up on subsequent pages. The only thing that reminded me I was reading Playboy instead of Rolling Stone was the bunny at the top of each page.

For what it’s worth, though, it appears that the media/brand world isn’t exactly ready to embrace the new format, no matter what the Playboy leadership has to say.

“They are counter cultural, just like in the 1960s, but moving in the wrong direction,” said Chris Wexler, senior vice president, director of media and consumer engagement at Cramer-Krasselt. “In the 60’s they were freedom and rebellion. Now they are a symbol for sexism and male dominated culture. Removing nudity just puts them in another shrinking category of ‘Bro Books’ like Maxim or the now defunct FHM. Magazines in general have struggled adapting to internet culture, and in Playboy’s case their entire reason for being has moved online. With Millennials being the least tolerant of ‘boys being boys’ of any generation yet – they are going to struggle finding more than a niche audience. We definitely aren’t recommending Playboy for our brands.”

I would agree that Playboy has a tall order on their hands in finding an audience that is wider than just niche (total paid circulation was around 820,000, far from its 5.6m peak in the very much pre-Internet days of 1975). I would disagree that they are like Maxim or FHM — but it’s hard to remove the decades-baked stench of sexism, which was a (welcome) big reason for the change in the first place.

But it may not matter here in the US anyway. According to Foreign Policy (which is actually my preferred recreational read due to my college major), Playboy Enterprises makes around 40 per cent of their revenue by licensing the iconic bunny logo on products ranging from cosmetics, fragrances, fashion clothing, luggage and more in China. Ironically, Playboy, the magazine, isn’t even available in the country, but a Wall Street Journal article noted that the brand has 97 per cent name recognition there — so the future may be a little bunny icon splattered across a tracksuit.

It will be interesting to see how all of this shapes up a year from now. Their digital plays should be telling. My very smart friend in Portland pointed out that if Hef and Co. built their own version of the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” game which, back in 2014, was raking in $700,000 a day, they could do well without the nudity — especially because the brand is so strong and they could do plenty with it anyway.

Or they could end up being a staple of Wenner Media. Consider that a prediction that may or may not make sense or come true.

It’s clearly less about Playboy the “title” and more about Playboy the brand. For decades, the magazine played such a prominent role, and opened up all kinds of debate and conversation. Those days are long gone, and Playboy likely has more value in something far more important (and profitable) than the printed pages anymore.

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