The first issue of Playboy without any nudity officially hits newsstands Feb. 12, marking a turning point for the brand that has been in the works for the last two years. It’s still not exactly safe for work, but without any nudity now offered among its properties, can the Playboy brand keep its cultural cool?
Industry reactions differ. "I personally feel that they’re diluting their brand and succumbing to mainstream societal pressure, weakening their identity," said Bex Bartolo, planning director at agency network Iris New York. "They were founded on bringing tasteful nudity to the mainstream and being a pretty radical publication. Do they no longer consider nudity tasteful?"
Others believe the publication was due for a change. "There's certainly a focus on sexuality and sexiness, but those concepts have evolved so much in the past few years that to not evolve with them feels wrong," said Jason Clement, president of creative media agency Noble People Los Angeles.
That evolution has occurred rapidly. The magazine is following in the footsteps of its website, which removed nudity in August 2014 in a move that revitalized web traffic and video views. In the first four months after that switch, the number of unique visitors to the site quintupled, from 4 million per month to 20 million. Unsurprisingly, video views on the site also increased. Perhaps most promising for the longevity of the brand, the average age of those visitors dropped precipitously, from 47 to 30.
It’s "a Playboy magazine for a new generation," according to a statement from the company. The revamp is an attempt to capture a younger, more modern audience, a fact reflected by both the editorial and aesthetic changes. In addition to adding clothing, the magazine has dropped the cartoons and bawdy jokes, and it will feature more art. The sex advice column will be written by a woman. The March 2016 issue also includes an essay on the IUD, a Q&A with the stars of the Comedy Central show "Broad City," and an in-depth interview with journalist Rachel Maddow.
It’s a shift that advertisers and distributors are finding more palatable. For the first time, the magazine will include an ad for an auto manufacturer, a custom-designed double gatefold ad for the Dodge Viper. It will also be available at 1,200 new outlets. The layout includes more white space, and the paper is thicker and higher quality. And without nudity, the magazine can be sold without a poly bag, in the front of shops and kiosks with other non-adult publications.
The photos themselves have lost the airbrushing in favor of a more natural, social media-friendly look. The cover features Snapchat and Instagram model Sarah McDaniel, arm extended as if taking a selfie, with the characteristic grey box of text ubiquitous in Snapchat photos. The service is the method of choice for sending risqué photos, since they are automatically deleted after several seconds
"The idea was to look at me from a boyfriend's perspective," McDaniel said in the Playboy statement. Some of the photos are grainy, embracing what’s been called in the fashion world an "imperfect aesthetic." And model Myla Dalbesio really did take her own photos.
"It’s like they’re trying to leverage culture and feminism but aren’t doing it authentically," said Barbara Herman, senior writer at Sparks & Honey, a marketing-services agency under the Omnicom umbrella. "This ‘new Playboy' is really an old and slightly creepier aesthetic, since it focuses on young girls who are posed as if they’re sending private selfies. There’s nothing revolutionary about covering them up. It’s almost worse than just photographing them butt-naked and Photoshopping them ‘perfect.’ "
Bartolo isn’t happy with the new look either, for different reasons. "A luxury brand like Playboy shouldn’t have to conform, and they shouldn’t have to align their aesthetic with a tame, user-generated style," she said.
But sometimes, people read Playboy for the articles. "What the new Playboy still has going for it, apparently, is what Esquire and GQ do," Herman added. "It will still feature smart, reported journalism."
For its part, Playboy prefers comparisons to Vanity Fair. The new issue features fiction from Bret Easton Ellis and an in-depth look a man’s struggle with US immigration policy.
"The Playboy of a few decades ago feels like the Vice of today," Clement said. "They weren't afraid to publish things others were." Whether that will be enough to keep the publication in the black remains to be seen, but Clement notes that Vice also still publishes a print edition.
Herman is more skeptical. "Millennial men don’t want to pay for magazines; why would they want to pay for this? Just because women are slightly more covered up? Seems like a desperate move to change for change’s sake."
The reception Playboy receives will likely depend on the whims of a market that is unimpressed by mere flesh and has never known a world without the 63-year-old brand. And that history is certainly worth something.
"Playboy has had a long legacy of brave editorial. From Hunter S. Thompson to Roald Dahl to Kurt Vonnegut, the pages have long been graced with literary kingpins," Clement said. "So if pulling out nudity, in an age where sex is very cool but the objectification of women certainly isn’t, pulls in more readers of any gender for their phenomenal editorial content, it’s a massive win for all sides."