Brands in the News

Playboy Wisely Covers Up

24 Feb 2016  

Last October Playboy announced a dramatic and surprising change – the brand would no longer publish pictures of nude women.

It was a shocking announcement. Playboy, after all, was a pioneer among adult magazines. When Hugh Hefner launched the magazine in 1953, its defining characteristic was racy photography.

Many people wondered where Playboy was heading with this move. Playboy without the photos? One person observed that Playboy without photos is a bit like the NY Yankees without baseball. This month, the first version with this new approach is out.

While surprising on the surface, Playboy’s transition is actually a very savvy move, because it changes the magazine’s frame of reference and opens up opportunities for growth.

A Frame of Reference Problem

One of the most important parts of brand positioning is the frame. Before people can evaluate a product or service, they have to know what the product or service is. You can’t sell someone organic cookie dough ice cream if they don’t know something about ice cream.

Playboy’s previous frame was adult or pornographic magazine. The presence of nude women clearly put the publication in that space. Although in some parts of the world, mass market publications feature revealing photos, this is not the situation in the U.S. Playboy was an adult magazine, along with Penthouse, Hustler, and a host of other rather unsavory competitors.

This frame was a problem for Playboy.

It eliminated many potential advertisers; a family focused brand isn’t likely to advertise in an adult magazine. It also cut down readership. Most people aren’t comfortable reading an adult magazine in public or even buying one in the first place.

Within the world of pornographic magazines, Playboy wasn’t a particularly exciting offering. There is a lot of competition. Playboy’s rather tame approach limited its appeal, and it lost share to new entrants. Circulation has fallen from over 5.5 million copies a month to about 800,000. Clearly, Playboy had to do something different.

A New Frame and Opportunity

With this shift, Playboy is changing its frame. It is now a men’s magazine. Like many such publications, there are photos of attractive women, but they are clothed. This is a different world. The competitive set includes GQ, Esquire, Maxim, and websites like the Chive.

The change has two big implications. First, advertisers who previously would not have been accessible to Playboy might now consider the brand. This opens up a world of growth opportunities. Second, more men might read the publication. If people think of Playboy as a lifestyle, not a pornographic media property, it will be more socially acceptable.

The transition won’t be easy. It takes time to reposition a brand, especially a well-established brand like Playboy.

Initial results are positive, though. Ad pages are up more than 50% versus year ago for this first, tamer issue. That certainly suggests the move to cover up is paying off.

3 Responses

  1. COSMO for men perhaps… If they achieve their repositioning endeavor.

  2. davetuchler says:

    Quite ironic, from a long-term perspective. Playboy’s original business model included featuring unclothed women but before they veered harder-core they importantly also featured enlightening (or at least interesting) contributions from prominent writers. This list included Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Gabriel García Márquez, Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, Hunter S. Thompson, Arthur C. Clarke, and Marshall McLuhan (among others). At one point you could actually say you bought the magazine for the writing!
    Would be great for them to return to a more edifying direction, but the weight of the Playboy brand must be pretty heavy by now and it may be hard to shift perceptions.

    • timcalkins says:

      Perhaps they will navigate the transition, and shift the focus back to editorial content. Certainly the writing becomes more important with the new direction.

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