That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.—William Wordsworth
The November 1972 issue of Playboy® sold over seven million copies. This month, they will be lucky to see 500,000 copies leave store shelves. What made that 1972 issue so popular? Was there a special interview? Were the articles particularly on point? Where the editorial cartoons especially biting? No, it was the gatefold of Lena Söderberg, shot by Dwight Hooker, that made the issue leap off shelves. In fact, it remains one of the most sought after collectors’ editions to this day. For years, a cropped version of that picture of Lena has been used as the ultimate test for dithering in color computer imaging. The gatefold is also a topic of conversation in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper. Ah, the glory days.
Much of the glory, however, is gone and the reasons have nothing to do with the magazine’s iconic nudes. There isn’t a printed periodical in the country that hasn’t been severely challenged by the Internet, for starters, and more than a few great titles have completely folded as a result. Online “magazines”, not unlike online shopping, took traditional publishers completely by surprise and even those who attempted to adapt early often did so in ways that were not sustainable. Only a few titles, such as the New York Times and Condé Nast’s Vogue have recently figured out how to make their print and online presence work symbiotically. For Playboy’s circulation numbers to have fallen dramatically isn’t surprising for that reason alone.
Playboy’s circulation problems didn’t begin with the Internet, though. Numbers had been declining long before online publishing was even a thing. Circulation in the 80s was lower than the 70s, and the 90s numbers were dramatically lower than the 80s. Blaming the Internet for the magazine’s decline ignores the fact that the glory that was once Playboy was long gone before live streaming and pervasive free porn ever became a factor. Playboy was already standing on the edge of a publishing cliff. All the Internet did was push it over.
If the Internet isn’t the cause of Playboy’s troubles, though, what is? Where is the luster and glory that made the name so well known? The list of reasons could be long, but overall they can be summarized into two primary categories: 1. Hugh Hefner left the magazine, and 2. the emphasis changed. One of the most seismic declines in circulation came when Hef turned control of the magazine over to his daughter, Christie. There were already some challenges even before than happened, but, inevitably, Christie’s vision for the magazine wasn’t the same as her father’s and it had been Hef’s view of how life should be lived that had driven the magazine since its inception. Sure, his name has always been on the masthead as editor in chief, but once his voice was no longer dominant, the magazine faltered.
More critically, though, Playboy the company became the primary competitor to Playboy the magazine. Special Editions introduced in the 80s were much heavier on photographs and contained extended set not shown in the magazines. Those who were primarily interested in the pictures picked up titles such as “Girls of the Big Ten” rather than the full magazine. The introduction of videos in the 80s also distracted some magazine buyers. Over the years, Playboy the company has become more dependent upon revenue from licensing than publishing, and that distraction has stolen glory from the magazine.
Playboy dropping nudes from its magazine is a reactive strategy that is likely to only hasten its demise. While Playboy’s management is quick to tout the five-fold increase in unique views the website had when it dropped nudes, expecting print readers to respond the same way is foolish and naive. Playboy dropping nudes is like the New York Times eliminating investigative journalism or Vogue deciding to drop fashion editorials. Gutting their primary source of glory is likely to have the opposite effect and may well find its editorial staff looking for new jobs.