In March 2016, Playboy will discontinue publishing its notorious nude photos to keep up with the culture. So what does that say about the brand on the larger scale?

Baseball, apple pie, and naked Playboy centerfolds — all unmistakable staples of American culture. While the national pastime and delicious dessert are the same as always, Playboy will soon be making a huge change. Last month, Ravi Somaiya of the New York Times broke the news that the iconic publication will discontinue its trademark explicit images.

Birthday Suit Beginnings

As Mashable reports, the departure occurs after 62 years of the sultry spreads, which were sandwiched between the pages of an otherwise relatively highbrow publication — at least at the start. Playboy debuted in 1953 with none other than Marilyn Monroe gracing the cover. In his first editor’s letter, founder Hugh Hefner wrote “[if] you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you.”

Heffner was a mid-century provocateur. “At the time when Hef founded the company [in 1953], nudity was provocative, it was attention-grabbing, it was unique…” explained Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO Scott Flanders in an interview with Entrepreneur.

The magazine’s juxtaposition of nude models and groundbreaking editorial content made it a potent firebrand during a decidedly repressed era. It was in many ways a torchbearer, guiding society into the sexually permissive age of today — even if it did devolve into increasingly chauvinistic and tasteless practices as it was absorbed into the cultural mainstream.

Expanding the Audience

Thanks in part to Playboy’s influence, the negative stigma surrounding the consumption of pornography has diminished significantly. Somewhat ironically, it’s the absence of this stigma that’s actually threatening Playboy’s survival — as we become increasingly saturated with free, on-demand nudity via the internet, it’s simply no longer a viable selling point for the publication.

What’s clear is that in order to stay afloat, Playboy must revitalize its brand. According to Flanders, the magazine will seek to embrace a more modern feel, while still holding onto some of its most beloved hallmarks, including the Playmate of the Month (albeit a bit more PG-13 than some readers may be used to).

In terms of photography, consumers can expect a style comparable to something that would push the limits of Instagram’s Terms of Use policy, an aesthetic that Jones describes as “[a] little more accessible, a little more intimate.”

The magazine’s long legacy of interviews, investigative reporting, and fiction will come back to the forefront — lest you forget that Playboy has published stories by Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami and interviews with Malcolm X, Vladmir Nabokov, and Martin Luther King Jr. The magazine will also be adding a sex-positive female columnist to its ranks, who will write articles about — you guessed it — sex.

According to a recent report from the Guardian, back in 1975, Playboy’s circulation was an impressive 5.6 million — today, that number has fallen to a relatively paltry 800,000. In fact, Flanders predicts that the magazine’s subscriber base will continue to shrink in the future, and since many of its contemporaries have gone out of print, it might not be too far-fetched to imagine a Playboy brand without the print edition.

Intentions Laid Bare

There are two possible, very different explanations for the move: either removing nudity is a savvy business maneuver to expand the magazine’s marketability and bolster profits for a failing enterprise, or removing nudity represents a step away from degrading, skin-deep smut towards a less chauvinistic brand of sexuality.

In reality, it’s a little bit of both. Playboy is simply recognizing an increased emphasis on gender equality within our society (better late than never, I suppose), and is changing its tune accordingly in an attempt to stay relevant. But don’t be fooled: what on the surface may appear to be a step in the right direction is clearly just an act of self-preservation. At the end of the day, the center-fold may look different, but the overall message remains the same.

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(Main image credit: r2hox/flickr)

Author Ryan Mach

As his title suggests, Ryan is L&T’s top creative mind and voice, supervising editorial quality and the on-boarding of new content experts and brand journalists. He’s also responsible for the production of high-profile content initiatives, ranging from industry white papers to expert commentaries for top digital publications like Inc and TechCrunch. Also a graduate of Kenyon College, Ryan previously served on the editorial board of the political magazine, the Kenyon Observer, and co-founded the Fabulist, an undergraduate literary publication.

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