This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Hugh Hefner isn't dead yet. It feels as though he's been about 76-years-old for the past 30 years, perpetually curving his spine into a stoop while shuffling through his mansion in satin slippers and that smoking jacket. His whole post-1980s schtick always relied on the assumption that he is creakily, comfortingly old.
Some would argue that Hefner isn't even really going to die once he physically isn't "with us" anymore. "Within a few years of starting Playboy on a shoestring after begging and borrowing a few thousand dollars, Hefner became a serious, influential figure in modern culture," wrote academic and Hef biographer Steven Watts, in 2010's Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream. "From the beginning, his enterprise was about more than dirty pictures, more than a girlie magazine hastily slipped under an overcoat by a guilty purchaser. It was a historical force of historical proportions."
I mean… I guess. For anyone who went through puberty after porn mags were usurped by online videos as a sexual rite of passage, it could be hard to square an interpretation of Hefner as an all-powerful media and business mogul with the old guy we now see. Most of us weren't alive to experience a company buoyed by profits from the magazine and the London Playboy Club's massive casino earnings. And since Playboy went private in 2011 then axed full nudes earlier this year, it's felt less relevant and more like a caricature of the glamor that first gave it potency in the 1960s.
But hey, Hef's 90 today so I spoke about his legacy with Susan Gunelius, a branding expert who devoted an entire book to Hefner's timelessness as a "brand champion." She told me about whether the only way we can still measure his value is in the double-talk jargon of marketing and branding, and why people think he matters.
VICE: Beyond knowing that people like reading about sex, why did you pick Playboy to write about?
Susan Gunelius: It started with the reality TV show The Girls Next Door: watching it, and seeing how women were connecting to the brand. I started to think about how Playboy's brand has transcended so much over the years, despite the fact that its had many problems, too. I remember sitting watching the TV show with my husband, and talking to him about how I thought that Hugh Hefner was the perfect example of a "brand champion"—which is basically the living embodiment of a brand.
What are some of the biggest factors that made you see that in Hefner?
Well, there aren't a lot of great examples out there. You could say people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, they're good examples too. But Hugh Hefner is such a good example in a way that goes back to the very beginning of the Playboy brand.
Its promise was of a specific lifestyle. A lifestyle that a lot of men in the 50s aspired to—you know, you're educated, you're intelligent, you're surrounded by beautiful women and all of these cultural people. Then there's the magazine, with awesome articles and big writers. It wasn't just the pornography; the pictures were secondary in a lot of respects.
What's made its influence stick?
That was the brand promise at the core of Playboy. And Hefner lived the lifestyle that was the brand promise—the TV shows, the Playboy clubs, the ways you could experience the brand how you chose—so it was just this perfect marriage of the Playboy lifestyle and its biggest advocate being the actual brand. You felt like you could become this person too, if you experienced Playboy in all these different ways. It was brilliant.
There's been plenty written about the tension between Playboy as a massive objectifier of women's bodies and as a progressive force in the sexual revolution. How did you chart that?
First they started building all of these different brand experiences, as a very smart move. In the 60 and early 70s the company was doing really well. But then they started to have some outside influences, certainly the government, and drug and sex scandals. Negativity started to build around it.
But at the same time, which was unfortunate, the brand started losing focus. It started expanding too far. In 1973, they had pre-tax profits of about $21 million. But by 1975, it had dropped to $2 million. The company had grown with no focus; it just kept expanding. By the mid-70s, the only parts of the company that were still profitable were the magazine.
And the London Club, right? I understand that before UK law had it shut down in the 1980s, the original club at 45 Park Lane was basically bankrolling the whole company.
Yes, the London Club and casino. Everything else was doing really poorly. There was economic slowdown of the 70s, and Playboy had built this $28 million resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey that hadn't broken even and was a huge mistake. So that's when things started going badly. That was the beginning of the problems.
And then each decade after that, there was a different set of problems and so, a continued loss of focus. When his daughter Christie Hefner came in in the 1980s, she tried to rein things in, and bring back some of that focus. But it was too little too late. Because at that time, her attempt to bring back focus was to hone in on the pornography aspect. And the internet was just starting to explode, so that was kind of a doomed decision.
Yeah, that clearly didn't work out for them.
But you know, hindsight's 20/20. Who would have known at the time how pornography would become socially acceptable? If we go back to what Playboy originally meant, it was a lifestyle. And they continued to focus on that throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. When they lost that focus they started to pivot towards pornography, trying to compete with Penthouse and then compete against free pornography on the internet in recent years. Had they not done that, had they stuck with that original focus, would the story have been very different?
Hefner famously wrote up a sort of manifesto, the Playboy Philosophy, with the help of the magazine's readers in the 1960s. But increasingly Playboy hasn't felt like that, like a mate you can speak to.
in the beginning years it was a very inclusive brand. Everyone was invited to the party. And like you said, it was about building this philosophy, not just sitting behind closed doors and saying, this is what we're going to do. When people become emotionally connected to the brand, it becomes 10 zillion times more powerful. As the years went on, it became more and more exclusive. And I'm not saying exclusive like luxury, like a good thing, I'm saying exclusive like fewer people were invited to the party.
I would have assumed that in a way that having introducing a male-focused readership to porn would have felt natural. How much did it end up putting people off?
Instead of continuing to focus on what they were doing with their lifestyle brand, they started to see some of their market shares get stolen and changed to compete more directly with these new competitors, like Penthouse and Hustler. It started to feel like they were shifting ot revenue-generating potential. And when you step away from your brand promise, and try to chase down someone else's, you're setting yourself up for failure.
It feels as though people are becoming too cynical too buy into that original story. They're seeing through the promise of luxury and finding something tackier beneath that.
That's exactly it. People are gonna dig in deeper to make sure that it actually matches its fantasy. And that's just the world we live in today. You go over to a country like China, where obviously pornography is illegal, the Playboy brand is more like Hello Kitty. And the majority of consumers are women. Now merchandise has become what carries the company. What's going to matter in the future is whether they can increase the interest in whatever lifestyle they decide to make their aspirational promise next.
Thanks for that, Susan.
Susan's book 'Building Brand Value the Playboy Way' is out now.
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