Last week Playboy offered the latest example of how much times are changing in the digital age.
The pioneer of soft-core porn announced that it is no longer going to publish images of naked women, beginning in March. Before we all celebrate this as a feminist victory, we need to ask why Playboy has now decided to rebrand itself as a lifestyle magazine for young men, much like Vice and FHM, or, put another way, Cosmopolitan for men.
Playboy successfully launched porn as a viable mainstream industry, but ironically, it is now a victim of the competition it spawned. The industry has evolved from soft-core magazines to hard-core internet platforms, and Playboy’s old advertising-based business model became obsolete. Playboy simply cannot compete in the world of contemporary porn because its pin-up style pictures look boring, bland and, yes, antiquated, next to the hard-core and cruel images that are now mainstream on the internet.
Playboy is your father’s porn, with young, naked, mostly white, airbrushed women smiling coyly at the camera as they frolic on a beach or a meadow. Today’s average porn user – typically male – would most likely die of boredom before he got to the centerfold, given the intensity, violence and brutality of acts that he has become so accustomed to as he clicks his way through pornhub.com or youporn.com.
As academics, we have studied porn for many years as a cultural and business phenomenon that shapes our society in deep and insidious ways, with negative impacts on gender equality and public health. We’ve also brought our expertise to bear in advocacy and legal struggles.
Our analysis of the evolution of the porn industry suggests that Playboy’s move really represents the triumph of mainstream porn and not a victory for women.
Winning the battle, losing the war?
That the magazine opened the way for more hardcore porn is not lost on Playboy executives, who told The New York Times that Playboy’s goal of making porn part of mainstream media culture is a “battle” that “has been fought and won.” Anyone familiar with this history of Playboy will know that using the word battle is not overkill.
Playboy had to fight many battles to survive.
First with the right wing, who wanted to shutter the magazine because of its supposed moral bankruptcy and threat to the heterosexual family. Also opposed to Playboy were feminists, who saw the images as sexist and degrading, and organized numerous protests against the magazine. However, the biggest challenge of all was the need to attract advertising dollars from big name companies who, in the conservative 1950s, were squeamish about placing ads for their products next to what was then considered scandalous pictures of semi-nude women. How quaint.
Playboy eventually won these battles and became one of the most successful and profitable magazines in the history of publishing. However, to stay that way, Playboy had to negotiate a very careful balancing act between the need to attract advertising from businesses and marketing agencies with clear policies proscribing explicit images, while simultaneously building circulation by keeping readers interested in the sexual content.
It was this built-in conflict that eventually led to Playboy’s downfall – and US$3 million in annual losses – and explains why it has given up competing in the porn market, which has increasingly become something Hugh Hefner wouldn’t recognize when he founded the magazine in 1953.
Selling a lifestyle (and nudes)
Hefner was a brilliant businessman who understood that the only way to sell porn in the 1950s and also attract advertising dollars was to wrap the magazine in the cloak of upper middle-class respectability. In the first issue of Playboy, Hefner told his readers:
We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors-d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, Jazz, Sex.
The markers of upper-class life were an attempt to avoid the sleaze factor that had previously been associated with porn. The articles, interviews and stories were needed as a cover during the early days of Playboy because porn use was stigmatized as low-class.
Playboy spent much of its early years crafting a magazine that taught upwardly mobile white men what clothes to wear, what furniture to buy for the office, what food to cook and, most importantly, how this consumption would attract the real prize: lots of women, just like the ones in the centerfolds.
Playboy thus not only commodified sexuality, it also sexualized commodities. Hefner revealed this strategy of sexualizing consumption when he explained:
Playboy is a combination of sex … and status … the sex actually includes not only the Playmate and the cartoons and the jokes which describe boy-girl situations, but goes right down in all the service features.
Hefner, by sexualizing consumption, provided an extremely hospitable environment for advertisers looking to expand in the post-war boom. By the end of 1955, advertisers had overcome their initial fear of advertising in a “men’s entertainment” magazine and were, according to author Thomas Weyr, “clamoring to buy.”
A rabbit hunter emerges
Ironically, it was in 1969 that Playboy came up against its first real competitor, Penthouse, and in the struggle it learned lessons that help explain why it has been forced to rebrand today.
In the summer of 1969, full-page ads appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times showing the Playboy bunny caught in the cross-hairs of a rifle. The caption read, “We’re going rabbit hunting.”
Robert Guccione, editor-publisher of Penthouse magazine, aimed to compete with Playboy by emulating its format of having both a literary and service side, while making the pictorials more sexually explicit. He did this by foregoing advertising revenue in the short term, planning to draw in the advertisers after he had put Playboy out of business. In a March 1970 Newsweek article on Penthouse, Guccione is quoted as saying:
I’m not coming to America to be number No 2 … in five years, Playboy and Penthouse will be locked in a toe-to-toe competition.
At first Hefner ignored Penthouse, seeing it as a poor imitator of his magazine, but by the end of 1970, Penthouse’s circulation had reached 1.5 million, and Hefner decided that it was time to go to war by making his centerfolds more sexually explicit.
In August 1971, Penthouse carried its first full-frontal centerfold, and, in January 1972, Playboy did the same.
The change in policy was successful: by September 1972, Playboy’s circulation had risen to 7 million, but the magazine’s advertisers were beginning to complain about the explicit nature of the pictorials, and high-level executives had to fly to New York to placate them.Eventually, due to the outside pressure of advertisers, internal battles with editors and the appearance of other competitors such as Gallery and Hustler, which captured the hard-core market, Hefner capitulated to Penthouse, sending a memo to all the department editors informing them that Playboy would cease to cater to “hard-core” readers. He would instead return to its previous standards.
Circulation figures from the nineties suggest that Hefner made the right decision. In 1995, Playboy had a monthly circulation of nearly 3.5 million while Penthouse reported just over 1 million. Playboy still had no real competitor as it successfully dominated the market for a respectable soft-core magazine.
Penthouse, on the other hand, positioned itself between soft-core Playboy and increasingly hard-core Hustler – not the best move from a competitive standpoint. It couldn’t attract the writers or interview subjects that provided Playboy with its markers of respectability and thus strong advertising revenues, nor could it risk offending the advertisers it already had by emulating the content of more hard-core magazines to grow subscribers.
Ironically, 20 years later this is exactly where Playboy now finds itself, in a world where internet porn has become far more violent and abusive than Penthouse and even Hustler.
To keep its image as a magazine for the well-heeled male, Playboy needs to continue to wrap itself in upper-class trappings, but were it to compete with mainstream internet porn, every advertiser would flee.
To give a sense of just how cruel and violent this porn has become, psychologist Ana Bridges and her team at the University of Arkansas found that a majority of scenes from 50 of the top-rented porn movies contained both physical and verbal abuse targeted against the female performers. And 90% of scenes contained at least one aggressive act if both physical and verbal aggression were combined.
Modern porn bids farewell to the girl next door
And that’s why Playboy’s “girl next door” had to go, because it couldn’t compete with the growing misogyny and explicitness of modern mainstream porn, in which a so-called “bitch” or “slut” supposedly prefers being gagged with a penis to gazing at the camera provocatively as she picks flowers in the nude.
The new denuded Playboy is still aiming for the higher-end male, according to Scott Flanders, Playboy’s chief executive, who describes how his target audience differs from other men’s lifestyle magazines by being “the guy with a job.”
Whether this rebranding will work remains to be seen.That’s because as Playboy was working hard to keep its advertisers happy by staying soft core, another company came in and made a killing by vacuuming up the hardcore porn market. That little-known company has played a dramatic role in reshaping the entire business strategy of porn for the internet age. Originally called Manwin, this Luxembourg-based company (renamed MindGeek in 2013 after CEO Fabian Thylmann stepped down following his arrest on charges of tax evasion) advertises itself as driving “the state of technology forward, developing industry-leading solutions enabling faster, more efficient delivery of content every second to millions of customers worldwide.”
That bland description masks the fact that this company is the biggest distributor of porn in the world. However, according to an article on the website therichest.com, MindGeek is “hands down” the world’s top distributor of porn, owning most of the biggest players, from Reality Kings (38 sites) to Brazzers (35 sites).
Brave new world of porn
MindGeek has revolutionized the business model and doesn’t have to worry about alienating advertisers.
Playboy will now try to compete more directly with other men’s lifestyle magazines and needs advertising related to content around fashion, health and gadgets. MindGeek, by contrast, makes money from a sophisticated system that relies on payment for click-throughs from free content with ads for webcams and “dating” services to subscription services.
The free porn sites have so much traffic – more than 100 million visitors a day – that dominant companies can monetize the digital real estate without relying on conventional advertisers. MindGeek operates like a lead company in a global value chain, consolidating vast amounts of content produced by subcontractors and circulating users around its system of linked sites.
Feras Antoon, CEO of Brazzers, told New York Magazine that free porn sites have so “vastly enlarged the total universe of porn consumers that the number of those who pay has ballooned along with it.”
Clearly, Playboy is now too far behind the times to compete in this highly sophisticated internet world of business. Weighted down by the Hefner legacy that is so last century, it will struggle to find a niche as a men’s lifestyle magazine.
But whether Playboy’s move to remove nudes and reposition the brand succeeds or fails, it is far from a win for women – rather, it reflects the market and cultural triumph of mainstream hard-core porn.
By Gail Dines, Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies, Wheelock College and David L Levy, Professor of Management, Director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness, University of Massachusetts Boston