It’s much easier to be successful than it is to be relevant. The tricks won’t keep you relevant. Tricks might keep you popular for a while, but in all honesty, I don’t know how U2 will stay relevant. I know we’ve got a future. I know we can fill stadiums. And yet with every record, I think, ‘Is this it? Are we still relevant?’—Bono
Having content that was socially relevant took the magazine from something one hid under the bed or in a closet, to one that was regularly discussed at dinner tables. It didn’t matter whether one approved of the content, it was the fact that people were talking about Playboy and its nudes that made the magazine relevant. For a celebrity, being in Playboy was an instant invite to the late-night talk shows, a career booster like no other. In fact, for a set of celebrities such as Pam Anderson, Carmen Electra, and Anna Nicole Smith, their careers would not have existed without their appearance in the magazine; it was just that relevant.
Playboy has long held a very unique and even peculiar place in American society. As hard as the mainstream media tried to demonize the men’s magazine, Hef continually produced content so incredibly relevant that people had to pay attention. The magazine’s interview with Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 was one of the factors that propelled Carter into the White House. Nancy Sinatra’s spread in 1995 helped rejuvinate a career that had been dormant for two decades but was about to explode again with the Kill Bill movies. Drew Barrymore and other former child stars took to the pages of Playboy to let the industry know they were ready for more adult roles. Granted, the spreads worked out better for some than it did others, but the point is that the nudes, as well as most all the content, were relevant.
Over the past few years, Playboy has stepped away from the controversy that once surrounded their nude spreads. As the quality of the photorgaphy diminished, so too did their choice of celebrities and models. One of the challenges they now face is that international fashion magazines, such as Vogue Italia, not only have more nudity than does Playboy, but they are more culturally relevant (because of the relationship to fashion) and the level of photography is arguably light years above anything Playboy is producing. Photographers such as Steven Meisel and Nick Knight are shooting the new celebrities, fashion models such as Cara Delevigne, Joan Smalls, and Karlie Kloss in nude editorials that render the mediocre nudes in Playboy almost boring.
Playboy could still come back to a position of being dominantly relevant, but it is not likely to do so by dropping nudes. The success of fashion magazines publishing creative nude spreads demonstrates that the right style of nude photography is still amazingly relevant and capable of selling print issues. Change has to happen, but dropping nudes isn’t the answer now and won’t be the answer in the future.