The Rise And Fall Of Playboy

The Rise And Fall Of Playboy


Irene Kim: Playboy used to be everywhere. Its best-selling issue
sold over 7 million copies. In the early 2000s,
Playboy’s logo could be found on everything from jewelry to tattoos, and Bunnies were all over
movie screens and reality TV. But Hugh Hefner’s gone, the original Playboy Clubs have closed, and magazine sales have shrunk to less than 4% of what they used to be. So, what happened? In 1953, former copywriter Hugh Hefner saw a demand for a gentleman’s magazine. Recruiting 45 investors who
cobbled together $8,000, a young Hef was ready to launch
what would become Playboy. Originally, Hefner wanted
to call it Stag Party, but was challenged by Stag Magazine, so a friend suggested the
name Playboy, and it stuck. But Hefner himself came up
with Playboy’s now iconic logo. He thought a tuxedoed rabbit would be “cute, frisky, and sexy.” With no office to work out of, Hef put the first issue
of Playboy together in his apartment on the kitchen table. The cover and centerfold
featured Marilyn Monroe. But Monroe never posed for Playboy. Hefner bought old photos
a struggling Monroe had posed for under a pseudonym, having no idea they
would eventually end up as a magazine feature. The star was never paid
for her Playboy debut. Regardless, the first issue
was released in December 1953. A huge success, the magazine
sold out of all 70,000 copies at $0.50 apiece. Hefner immediately invested
his profits back into Playboy, expanding his staff. Circulation grew quickly, partly because of the
magazine’s lack of competition. But not only was Playboy one of the first to publish colored
photographs of nude women, its Playmate concept set
it apart from the rest. Each issue featured a
“Playmate of the month,” starting with Hefner’s then girlfriend and subscription-department employee Charlaine Karalus, aka Janet Pilgrim. Hefner described Playmates
as women who could be “the new secretary at your office” or the “girl who sells
you shirts and ties.” In other words, a wholesome woman you could meet in real life, not a distant, professional model. The photo layouts were a seduction, with the Playmate slowly
revealing more and more until being fully nude in the centerfold. By the end of the 1950s, the magazine was selling
a million copies a month. And while it was a popular joke to claim that one only bought
Playboy for the articles, the magazine did establish a reputation for literary excellence, publishing in-depth interviews with all sorts of cultural icons and excerpts from esteemed
writers like James Baldwin. Even when its first true
competitor, Penthouse, launched, Playboy stayed on top, with print sales peaking
at 7.1 million copies of the November 1972 issue. Playboy made $12 million
in profit that year. That’s $73 million today. Playboy grew to be more than a magazine; it was a lifestyle. Hefner expanded Playboy Enterprises to include the Playboy Clubs, designed to embody the glamorous
and luxurious lifestyle marketed by the magazine. 50,000 members joined the
original Playboy Club in Chicago in its first year. Soon, there would be 23
Playboy Clubs around the world. Bobbie Walters: It was an
incredible place to be. It was magical. Kim: That’s Bobbie Walters. She worked as a Bunny at the Playboy Club in New York City and, later, Miami. Walters: In New York City,
there were 100 girls there. There were six different floors. So you could enjoy a show, you
could enjoy a gourmet dinner, or you could dance to disco music, or you could just go down
into the Playmate bar and have a drink. Kim: As for what it was
like to work as a Bunny… Walters: The training was one week long. Once we got to the Playboy
Club and got on the floor, we learned how to do the Bunny Dip. Tape: OK, once again, let’s see the Bunny Dip down just so. Walters: Which is an
extremely ridiculous thing because you’re standing on 6-inch heels, leaning backwards, serving liquor. Kim: Bunnies had to follow strict rules dictated in their Bunny Manuals. Walters: It told you all about
the rules and regulations, how the costume was supposed to look. Kim: Bunnies also had a
specific greeting for guests. Walters: So, you would walk
up to the table slowly, and they would just be looking, “Oh, my God, there’s my Bunny,” and then you’d just
approach a table and say, “Good evening, I’m your Bunny, Bobbie.” Kim: And the Bunnies were what really drew people to the Clubs. Walters: You could get a
scotch and soda anywhere, but you couldn’t get a
glimpse of a Playboy Bunny. Kim: But the 750,000 Playboy Club members and 60 million magazines sold
yearly wouldn’t last forever. Despite their early success, all the Playboy Clubs
were closed down by 1986. They had been losing money for years. The changing social and political climate shifted public perception of the clubs. Rather than being daring, they were now seen as degrading to women. And the rise of 1980s video porn was giving the print magazine competition. As magazines like Stuff and
Maxim entered the market, circulation continued to
decline through the ’90s. Playboy also made the fatal mistake of not moving online fast enough. As the internet boomed,
online searches for Playboy would literally return
ads for their competitors. Playboy tried to offset its losses by licensing out its trademarked logo. Billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise with the bunny logo were sold. Playboy merchandise did
particularly well in Asia, especially China, despite laws prohibiting the
magazine from being sold there. But it wasn’t enough. The high sales numbers only returned small licensing revenue for Playboy. Hefner tried to revive his empire with a venture into reality TV. In 2005, he signed up
for an E! reality show that followed his life with
his then three girlfriends: Holly Madison, Bridget
Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. “The Girls Next Door” aired in
over 150 countries worldwide and ran for six seasons. It made Hef and Playboy a visible part of early 2000s pop culture. Despite its decline, Playboy helped launch successful careers for the likes of Pamela
Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith, while stars like Naomi
Campbell and Madonna graced its cover. President Donald Trump
is particularly proud of his Playboy feature. But by the time the company finally placed its full archives online, it was too late. When Hefner passed away in 2017, Playboy seemed directionless, and investors had been
losing money for decades. With circulation at an all-time low and reported losses of $7 million a year, the magazine was scaled back
to release only quarterly. But it isn’t over for Playboy just yet. In September 2018, the Playboy Club in
New York City reopened, complete with waitresses
dressed as bunnies, and the magazine is rebranding to appeal to a younger generation. The 2019 summer issue featured
not models or actresses, but instead, three activists. Women also now play a significant
role behind the camera. It’s a clear contrast
to Playboy’s origins, when women had very little autonomy. Whether Playboy’s efforts
to be more empowering can save the magazine remains to be seen. A lot has changed since
Hugh Hefner started Playboy, and it’s unclear whether it’ll survive. But there’s always the logo, and that’s a billion-dollar legacy.

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About the Author: Oren Garnes

35 Comments

  1. Sad fall of icons like Pan Am & Concord jet set of a bygone era. All for non adaptability; as in the 80's cable channel didn't continue on the 90's internet jump. And the 10's inability to cater demand in variety; catering mostly to cisgendered white heterosexual males fantasies. Also a lack of a merger; with Playgirl, or anything similar like Playpen etc. Then rebranding as maybe "Play'bois" & include categories seen all over the internet.

  2. “Women who could be the new secretary at your office or the girl who sells you shirts and ties” so in other words, a submissive, lower-than-a man woman? Say it how it is instead of pretending that playboy didn’t fuel sexism.

  3. So, liberalism and not moving to the internet killed Playboy? And now, liberalism might be the same reason Playboy still has a chance to raise again?

  4. fun fact: my mom's boss was neighbors with hugh hefner and they would have lunch together. she lived in the house right next door

  5. I don’t know why Hefner didn’t let Playboy adapt to the internet right away, such a huge business mistake on his part.

  6. Online porn happened…the softcore porn of Playboy is now a days in regular TV, so they dont have that impact anymore. And finally to end it, online quality porn videos and photos came along…

  7. I was around 8-10 years old. So i was playing around with one of my brother's computer and it had a bunny logo. I thought it was just a friendly game but when i opened it my whole life changed.

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