Playboy’s risque, err risky move

By Jeff Linville - [email protected]

On Tuesday evening as I write this, a rumor that has been swirling for a couple of years finally was proved true.

Playboy magazine will no longer feature nudity.

After six decades of publication, Playboy is toning down its look in the hopes of appealing to more readers.

I have trouble believing that’s going to work out okay.

Yes, I have seen the sales numbers. I can see that Playboy isn’t the driving cultural phenomenon it once was. But I don’t see this idea making things better for the company.

At its peak in 1975, Playboy had 5.6 million subscribers. With the population in those days, that came to about one out of every 18 or 19 men.

These days it is one out of every 200 men. The population has soared about 50 percent in that time, but the magazine has only about one-eighth the readership it once had.

So yes, I see the problem. If you had a gas tank that was leaking fuel, you would know that you have to act before your tank runs dry.

The thing is, though, is that Playboy is still significantly bigger than any other men’s magazine on the planet.

To use the previous analogy, it’s like you have a tanker truck with a small leak, so you want to transfer all the fuel to a pickup.

Sure, 800,000 readers is small compared to 1975.

However, that is four times what Men’s Health has, and that is the next-closest competitor. And Men’s Health has a very different audience than Playboy.

Playboy without nudity is more closely like GQ, Esquire or FHM.

In news reports from earlier this year, GQ has 125,000 readers (Playboy has six and a half times as many).

FHM dropped 18 percent in 2014 to about 79,000 (Playboy is 10 times larger). Esquire has 58,500 readers (Playboy is about 14 times bigger).

The New York Daily News reported that Playboy took on loans of $185 million in April 2013. In its latest financial filings, as reported by, Playboy lost $7.56 million in its last fiscal year.

We are talking about a company with revenues of $316 million and it still lost $7.56 million.

What is going to happen to the company if its readership plummets to GQ or Esquire levels?

It may seem like an opposite example, but consider this: the swimsuit issue is the most-profitable edition of Sports Illustrated all year. What if the magazine dropped all sports content and just did swimsuit photos? Sure, there would be a market, but it would be far less than the subscribers it has now. Sports is the reason for the season, to borrow a Christmas phrase.

At Playboy, naked women is the reason for the season.

One news article noted that Playboy loses money on its magazine, but makes a good profit with its other ventures, such as Playboy apparel, jewelry, cologne and collectibles.

I’m sure that’s true now, but it’s because Playboy still has name value.

How many women wear GQ T-shirts? How many Esquire necklaces have you ever seen? Once Playboy is just another men’s magazine, those types of purchases will decline.

I can hear you now: Well if you’re so smart, what is the company supposed to do?

You are right; that’s a very tough question. The easiest response is that 800,000 readers is still a lot, and the company should be able to tighten its belt and figure out how to make a profit off $316 million in revenue.

Even if readership were to drop 10 percent year after year, it would take a long time before Playboy is down to GQ level.

When Hugh Hefner first started out, Playboy was shocking. Then 30 years later, there were much more revealing magazines out there like Penthouse and Hustler, so Playboy hung its hat on trying to be more artistic with its photo shoots.

Hefner also brought a lot of attention by getting big-name celebrities to pose. The magazine’s two biggest sellers of all time are the December 2007 and January 2012 issues, which featured Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan respectively.

I think those two factors, artistry and celebrity, are why the publication still sells as well as it does.

Sex sells. Always has. Even with this new approach, Playboy will still sell sex. But with a PG-13 rating, will there be fewer or greater buyers?

By Jeff Linville

[email protected]

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.

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