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Commentary: Did online porn kill the Playboy nude?

🕐 4 min read

When Playboy announced that it would no longer publish fully nude women in its print edition, the company framed the decision as a bid to stay relevant in a world filled with online porn.

Tuesday, chief executive Scott Flanders told the New York Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free.” It’s “just passe” to print images of nude women in a print magazine. In the world of Rule 34 – if you can think of it, there is a porn of it somewhere on the Internet – what’s the point of publishing a magazine as a pornography delivery medium?

The problem outlined here isn’t unique to Playboy, or even racy magazines as a whole. The porn industry in the United States has been in crisis for a few years now, facing many of the same needs to adapt online as any other content producer.

As NBC noted earlier this year, there aren’t a ton of concrete numbers available on the industry’s overall health, but the general perception is that the industry is now stabilizing a little bit. It’s still, as an industry, however, trying to contend with a major threat to its financial viability: the plethora of pirated, often free to access, offerings of pornographic content.

The cultural relevance of pornography has never been higher – see “Fifty Shades of Grey,” for instance. And traditional porn producers are trying to figure out how to take back control of consumption habits that have allowed the piracy of their own products to flourish, as Buzzfeed reported recently. And Playboy, which believes it is owed some credit for cultural liberations that got us to where we are today, is not necessarily benefitting by continuing to publish nude women in a print magazine.

Playboy’s new direction, framed as an editorial decision, could also be seen as an attempt to rekindle the magazine’s merit as a place for interesting writing – a reputation that has been lost over time, with only the joke “I read Playboy for the articles” remaining.

Playboy in the past has published Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood and other authors of literary merit. It’s recently taken steps to try and reclaim some of that ground as a lifestyle publication worth reading. As its own announcement of the nudity change says, Playboy’s website recently went “safe for work,” as they’ve pushed their articles into the grazing field for online readers, particularly the publication’s targeted male audience.

“The Bunny transcends nudity. Tens of millions of readers come to our non-nude website and app every month for, yes, photos of beautiful women, but also for articles and videos from our humor, sex and culture, style, nightlife, entertainment and video game sections,” they wrote. Playboy told the Times that the change online resulted in a younger and larger audience for their site. The change could lead to a corresponding boost in the size and advertising desirability of its print readership.

But there’s actually another issue at play, one hinted at in the Times article: Playboy is also a brand, and one with an international appeal that goes way beyond what the magazine does and doesn’t publish. Here’s the Times:

“The Playboy logo of a rabbit head wearing a tuxedo bow tie remains one of the most recognized brands globally. The logo has appeared on necklaces, including the one Carrie Bradshaw wore for a while in ‘Sex and the City,’ as well as everything from shower products and tank tops for dogs. There remains a huge and growing market for such merchandise overseas, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe.”

In an early response to Playboy’s announcement, Quartz looked at whether concerns for the brand, and not the magazine, motivated the change, and made a pretty strong case. Removing nudes from Playboy magazine “gives it a better image in countries where government policies towards pornographers can be highly critical – which just happen to be the two most populous countries in the world (China and India),” wrote Josh Horowitz.

In a 2010 interview with the South China Morning Post, Horowitz noted, Playboy’s Flanders noted that the Playboy bunny image transcended the magazine’s circulation. In some Asian countries with more restrictive policies on pornography – like China – the brand of the bunny nonetheless thrives. “I think we have a cleaner image in the mind of the consumer in Asia,” Flanders said, because customers there might not immediately associate the bunny with the magazine’s nude content.

It’s clear that Playboy wants to grow its circulation, which was once in the millions, up from 800,000, and sees the success of their safe-for-work website as an indicator that readers will seek out Playboy for things other than fully nude images. But the fact that, as the Times notes, 40 percent of Playboy’s revenue comes from China, a country where that magazine isn’t even available for purchase, speaks to Quartz’s point, that the change could help the brand to grow in a place where the magazine’s racy content is more than a problem of relevance.

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