By Pete Sweeney
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The sexual revolution’s greatest salesman has put down his smouldering pipe at 91. Hugh Hefner built Playboy magazine’s blend of nudity and smarts into a business empire crowned with a bunny-ear logo that is recognised worldwide. But Hefner’s business aged far less gracefully than he did.
At one time, Hefner’s market seduction routine seemed irresistible. Playboy could print an interview with Martin Luther King, commission contributions from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and cover the spread with naked women. Some of them went on to fame: Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Drew Barrymore, for example. A young Donald Trump graced the cover in 1990 – clothed.
Success came from positioning Playboy as catering to something higher than testosterone. The magazine embodied a masculine social movement that cast off prudery in a smart, sensual, and profitable way. It was also to be an arbiter of taste for hedonism: the watches, cars and suits to buy; the books to read; the people to watch. Hefner also sold products and services branded with the unmistakable logo.
The Playboy business, however, arguably climaxed even before the rise of the internet. Online pornography – which Hefner never quite went for – accelerated the departure of eyeballs and ad dollars, and lifestyle magazines like Maxim competed for the attention of younger men. As often, though, the ultimate turnoff was ennui. Playboy lost its ability to shock and stimulate as Hefner’s social revolution became the norm and his Playboy-bunny labelling of women less acceptable.
Though Playboy Enterprises tried to reinvent itself, magazine circulation fell from about 5.6 million in 1975 to less than 500,000 in the first half of this year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The public company’s share price drooped steadily from a peak in 1999, and Hefner took it private in 2011. The magazine tried doing away with nudity in 2015, but brought it back in 2017. There is buyer interest in the business, according to news reports, but no deal has been consummated.
The famous Playboy mansion was sold last year, with the caveat that Hefner could live there for the rest of his life. The silk pyjama-clad founder’s enthusiasm for his Playmates hardly waned. As for the business, without the founder there’s not much left below the bunny ears.
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