Magazines in Decline : Sex Losing Its Appeal for Playboy

Times Staff Writer

Playboy Art Director Tom Staebler thumbed galley proofs of his magazine--past Miss November and a feature on men’s skin-care products--and mused over recent problems caused by the religious right.

In little more than a year, fundamentalists have persuaded an estimated 17,000 stores to drop Playboy and rival Penthouse from their magazine racks. In part because of that loss, Playboy cut ad rates by 17% in July and announced the loss of close to 700,000 in circulation.

“I honestly don’t think these people have looked at our magazine recently,” Staebler said.

That, say magazine industry analysts, is the paradox of the recent assault by fundamentalists on American men’s magazines. The attacks come as Staebler and his colleagues are trying to take some of the sex out of Hugh Hefner’s magazine--but not because of a new wave of righteousness.

Shrinking Target Audience

Men’s magazines are changing because they face an even greater threat from a shrinking target audience of young men and a growing American preference for watching more explicit sex on cable TV and video cassettes.


Playboy is competing by getting softer, trying to reposition itself as a competitor to Esquire and Gentleman’s Quarterly. At the same time, its parent company, Playboy Enterprises, is moving more heavily into video cassettes.

Penthouse is countering by becoming more explicit, and by diversifying into everything from selling powdered milk in the Arab world to publishing a magazine aimed at military officers about biological warfare.

“The technological age of video,” Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt declared, “will make men’s magazines passe.”

These are indeed hard times in the skin trade. Playboy circulation has shriveled from nearly 7 million in 1972 to just 3.4 million this year.

Hustler Tumbled Too

Penthouse too has fallen to 2.7 million from its heyday of 4.5 million in 1978. And Hustler has tumbled from 1.9 million in 1976 to roughly 800,000, Hustler says.

One reason for the fall may have nothing to do with morality. Men’s magazines are a young man’s fancy, according to publishing analyst J. Kendrick Noble Jr. of the brokerage firm of Paine Webber. And the number of young men is declining as the baby boom generation ages.

Then there are more competing entertainment media, particularly cable TV and video cassettes, which offer adult entertainment of their own.

Numbers are inexact, but Americans bought or rented more than 100 million adult video cassettes in 1985, according to Paul Eisele of the Fairfield Group, a Darien, Conn., market research firm.

Playboy and Penthouse deny that their circulation hemorrhage is terminal, but Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione concedes that his magazine could shrink to 2 million circulation within five years. At Playboy, said Photography Director Gary Cole, “Add up all these things, changing life styles, all the new leisure options, I think sometimes we all get pretty depressed around here.”

Playboy believes its salvation may be in moving away from “a monotonous and relentless focus on sex,” and positioning itself as a general-interest men’s magazine, said Playboy’s editorial director and associate publisher, Arthur Kretchmer, the man insiders say now runs the magazine.

Staebler talks about “fashion-oriented” covers, which means the women are wearing something. In the November issue, three out of every four pages of photographs are of people who are clothed, including a spread on men’s skin-care products, fashion, male movie stars and college football. A few years ago, said Photo Director Cole, a feature on men’s watches would have had the time pieces “draped over nude bodies.”

And in those nude pictorials that remain, Staebler admits, “the erotic content is not great.” In a September spread on “Farmers’ Daughters,” several of the daughters are clothed and several others appear as small figures in larger photos of barns or agricultural gear.

Cole discusses trying to give a “more complete” picture of life on the farm.

Took Out the Staples

The change, editors say, accelerated 12 months ago when Playboy took the staples out of the centerfold and switched to a glued or so-called perfect binding.

In addition to making it easier to swap ads in the magazine’s 28 separate local and regional editions, Playboy President Christie Hefner also hopes that glue will push Playboy further from the sex magazine category, likening it to other publications using perfect binding, such as Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and other so-called “coffee-table” magazines.

Can Playboy so transform itself? Many are skeptical. “I don’t care how many Norman Mailer pieces you run,” said Al Goldstein, the editor of a magazine called Screw. “As long as you have pictures of naked women, you’re a men’s magazine.”

Advertising numbers suggest indeed that “the repositioning may not be working,” said Roberta Garfinkle, an advertising executive with the firm of McCann-Erickson. Garfinkle said research at her firm shows that for the first six months of 1986, a time when the apparent repositioning at Playboy has intensified, Playboy has lost advertising faster than Penthouse. In the two years previous, the reverse was true, although advertising linage among men’s magazines over time has shrunk with circulation.

Still an Embarrassment

To some extent, however, Playboy’s current strategy became inevitable in the 1970s when Hefner and team decided to retreat from what became known as the “Pubic Wars.” The phrase, which still seems to embarrass Playboy editors, refers to the arrival in 1969 of Playboy’s first true competition, Bob Guccione’s Penthouse.

Guccione defied pornography laws of the day by offering full frontal nudity. When he succeeded, Hefner and Playboy reluctantly followed, yet they admit now their heart was not in it. “We lost our compass,” Staebler said.

They also lost circulation. By 1978, Playboy dwindled to just 4.8 million, and Penthouse had gone from nothing to just 300,000 behind.

Others followed, including Flynt, whose Hustler magazine circulation was 1.9 million by 1976.

Playboy stopped Guccione’s charge in 1978 in part by switching its base from newsstand sales to home subscription. The move stabilized circulation and attracted advertisers: Playboy now has twice the ad linage and three times the ad revenue of Penthouse.

‘Used to Be Very Risque’

But it also had profound implications on what editors could put inside Playboy. “We used to be very risque when we were hidden under the pillow.” Assistant Publisher J. P. Tim Dolman said. “Now we come in the mail. We have to be more mainstream.”

For starters, Playboy had to offer more than “pictures of nude women, an interview and fiction by high-priced writers,” said Cole.

Another problem in modernizing was Hefner, who clung, editors say, to the 1950s format.

Playboy’s house ads, for instance, called “What sort of man reads Playboy,” always showed an attractive woman, often with a man, staring longingly at another man who presumably read the magazine.

Hefner called the image “the ultimate compliment,” and it was part of the Playboy fantasy: a single man, living the good life, driving fast cars, buying the best products and attracting long looks from beautiful women.

The ad eventually became “a self-parody,” Cole said, “but Hef was hanging on to it.” Playboy editors finally persuaded Hefner to abandon it.

To this day, some items survive, such as Playboy’s Party Jokes and Party Girl, a naked woman in high heels, black silk stockings and long black gloves. “The Party Girl is run as an anachronism,” Kretchmer claimed. “And people read the jokes to read the bad ones as much as the good.”

Some Playboy editors say the magazine began to change more rapidly after March of last year when Hefner suffered a stroke.

“When he was out ill was a very invigorating time for us,” Cole said. “Before the stroke, a lot of the time I was a Hef second-guesser. We were still carrying out his vision. Now we feel it is more of a group effort and Hef is part of the group. But we have to be accountable to our own tastes too.”

‘60 and Out of Touch’

Nat Lehrman, former director of magazines for Playboy Enterprises, puts it more simply: Hefner “is 60 and obviously out of touch.”

Playboy said Hefner was unavailable for an interview.

Change was complicated by poor planning and profligate spending, Assistant Publisher Dolman says. Until recently, the magazine survived by “hoping for a hit,” a hot celebrity who would pose sans clothes and boost magazine sales one month, Dolman says.

Today, in addition to repositioning the magazine, Christie Hefner hopes to protect the Playboy empire by moving into cable and cassettes.

Avoid Playboy Channel

So far, however, the four-year venture into cable has proved difficult. Many cable operators, who hold their franchise with community approval, have avoided the Playboy Channel, and the company has also had trouble keeping subscribers.

Playboy has higher hopes for video cassettes, in which it has dabbled since 1983. Until recently, however, the tapes were largely material recycled from cable, and even Playboy executives admit they had not quite found a way to make Playboy Playmates successfully walk and talk on tape.

Playmates on video usually were shot wandering through nature settings in the buff, picking flowers and musing about how much they enjoyed posing nude. Future efforts incorporate the quick cutting and musical emphasis of rock videos, and Playboy officials have high hopes.

Some magazine industry analysts think Playboy would be better off trying to produce new magazines rather than trying to sell the old one in a new form.

In that regard, they say, Penthouse Publisher Guccione has been more successful. From his East Side art-filled mansion in New York, Guccione now oversees six magazines, from Four Wheeler, a publication about four-wheel automobiles, to Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense and Technology, a publication apparently aimed at military personnel.

Guccione says Penthouse magazine itself now accounts for only 61% of his sales.

Omni Is a Success

Guccione’s largest success came in launching Omni, a science, science-fiction and futurist magazine, in 1978. With a circulation of 855,454, Omni is the lone success among popular science magazines, an arena where other publishers, including Time Inc., have so far failed.

Guccione also has published 45 books under the Omni label and produced 18 half-hour programs and four one-hour science specials.

The man who published nude photos of Miss America, Vanessa Williams, two years ago is also serious about his newest venture, selling dried milk to the Third World.

“We recently launched this in the Arab world,” Guccione said, plunking down in front of a visitor a container of Primo dried milk, the label in English and Arabic, a picture of former boxer Muhammad Ali on the side.

“Muhammad Ali is a partner, and it’s been extremely well received.”

‘Girl Next Door Moved’

At Penthouse magazine itself, “we’ve become more explicit because the public taste is more explicit,” he says. “Playboy’s girl next door moved away a long time ago, and they never realized it.”

Industry analysts believe that Guccione, like Playboy, probably had little choice. Roughly 95% of Penthouse’s circulation, and most of the profits, come from men paying full cover price for the magazine at newsstands, where he competes with the most explicit fare.

Another newsstand competitor, Hustler, maintains a circulation of roughly 800,000. The magazine survives, Flynt says, largely because it devotes several pages of each issue to reviewing X-rated videos, thus complementing rather than competing against the changes in technology.

The men’s magazine editors said they find it paradoxical to be the target again of the religious right while losing ground to consumer preference for material more hard core.

The movement against men’s magazines has gained ground for about two years, but it became most effective this spring, when the executive director of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III’s Commission on Pornography sent letters to 13 major drug and convenience store chains alleging that they had been named as major purveyors of pornography by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, chairman of the National Federation for Decency. The letter threatened that the government would name the retailers as pornographers unless the owners of the chains could prove otherwise.

Barred by Judge

Playboy and Penthouse sued, and a federal judge later barred the commission from publishing the so-called “blacklist.” The commission also formally exempted Playboy and Penthouse from its definition of pornography.

But several of the stores named in the letter stopped selling the magazines anyway.

Over the last 18 months, Wildmon and his colleagues have persuaded roughly 13,000 drug stores alone to drop the magazines. That does not include convenience stores, including an estimated 5,000 7-Eleven stores. Only one of the nation’s top 20 largest drug-store chains--Perry’s in Michigan--still sells men’s magazines.

Guccione is convinced that people eventually will find alternative stores to buy his Penthouse and some stores will come back.

In the meantime, some at Playboy sound almost as if they welcome the battle with the familiar antagonists on the right. The attacks by the fundamentalists recall better days, when Hefner and the Playboy Bunny logo seemed a hip symbol of reform.

“The culture needs Playboy now as much as in the ‘50s--more than it did in the ‘70s,” Kretchmer said hopefully.