What is Playboy without naked women? It sounds a little bit like Car and Driver magazine without cars or drivers, and for readers who want only to gawk at the most intimate of female parts, it is just that. For everyone else, the makeover is subtler than you might expect. And frankly, the starkest changes have little to do with flesh.
In its March issue, the magazine will abandon full-frontal nudity, which has been the core of the brand’s identity since its beginning in 1953, with a centerfold of Marilyn Monroe and lots of pathbreakingly candid talk about sex. As announced in October, Playboy is shedding NC-17-rated fare and revamping itself for the digital age, when racy images are as easy to find as Wi-Fi.
Playboy sent an advance copy of the redesigned issue, and let us get straight to the point: There are still naked women in this newly demure version of the magazine. It’s just that they have been shot in ways intended for strategic concealment.
The centerfold, for instance — yes, there is still a centerfold, in this case, Dree Hemingway, a great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway — cavorts in the buff. But this is the Garden of Eden after a bite of the apple, and our Eve, while amused, seems a bit embarrassed. In one shot, it’s as if someone has just stolen her clothing, leaving her to hide as much of herself as she can with both hands.
Ms. Hemingway and other featured women in the issue are unretouched. Playboy photographs have long been triumphs of technology, giving models a sheen of perfection that is unobtainable without lots of carefully placed lights and aggressive airbrushing. That is over. Some images in the March issue are grainy, and all feel more impromptu than posed. The magazine has adopted the unadorned, point-and-shoot aesthetic made famous by American Apparel ads and fashion photographers like Terry Richardson.
Paradoxical as it may sound, Playboy has undergone major cosmetic surgery and emerged from the operating room looking more natural.
The transition to a tamer product is part of a strategy to draw in a younger audience, said Cory Jones, Playboy’s chief content officer. “A year and a half ago, we relaunched Playboy.com as a safe-for-work site, and traffic skyrocketed 400 percent,” he said. “The average age of our visitors dropped from 47 years old to 30. It showed how the brand can still resonate.”
This speaks to the boldest gamble of the overhauled magazine: It is now pitched squarely to millennials and the era of the smartphone. The cover displays a winsome young woman whose arm extends straight out of the frame, as if she were taking a selfie. In a familiar font, it reads, “heyyy ;)” beneath her. It’s like a virtual come-hither, via Snapchat.
There are other updates. Gone are the bawdy cartoons as well as the racy ads at the back of the magazine, for stuff like “bedroom adventure gear.” The phrase “Entertainment for Men,” which has graced the cover since that 1953 debut, has vanished. So too has the dense and cluttered layout that has defined the magazine’s appearance since the 1970s, when circulation stood at 5.6 million. (It is now about 700,000.) In its place is an airier and more contemporary feel, with a lot more white space.
In short, the new Playboy, which will appear on newsstands as early as this weekend, has ditched its jauntily illicit aura and become a slightly saucier version of a lot of other magazines, like Esquire and GQ. But the March issue retains elements of the original DNA, including a lengthy interview (with the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow) and a long essay by a famous writer (the Norwegian memoirist and awkward-moment connoisseur Karl Ove Knausgaard).
Whether this will appeal to younger readers without alienating regulars is unclear. The problem is that many of these ingredients can be acquired separately by anyone with time and a web browser. And with a web browser, these ingredients can be acquired in no time at all.
The print version of Playboy, in other words, is struggling with the conundrum of the Internet, just like every other legacy media enterprise. But say this for the redesign: Even if it fails to increase subscriptions, it makes that deathless dodge “I read it for the articles” a little easier to utter with a straight face.