It's a strange twist of history that one of the many reasons the Playboy brand is sliding into irrelevance is because some girls like it. Just ask its most die-hard constituency: collectors of Playboy memorabilia.
The Wall Street Journal reports on Playboy's ever-more-aggressive licensing strategy — which includes a navel ring, "a tanning spray, a disposable lighter, a mattress, a couch and a line of drinks designed to boost the libido" — which has the unintended side effect of alienating the brand's "base." That is, people who devote entire floors of their homes to Playboy merchandise are pissed off because the purity of the brand is being sullied.
But it's not just the brand's ubiquity. It's also the fact that the Playboy Bunny is increasingly associated with girls' stuff. (Somewhere in a storage box is a pair of sheer blue harem pants, encrusted with a rhinestone Playboy Bunny, a gift I somewhat reluctantly received from a spring break tour packager in Jamaica. The invitation to the Playboy Bunny Fashion Show was declined.) One of the Journal's interviewees is rather blunt on this point:
That doesn't sit well with John Camacho, a 38-year-old collector in Michigan. He has an iron-on image of the cover of the September 1976 issue of the magazine but he says he's reluctant to put it on a shirt given the growing popularity of Playboy apparel among women. "Now it's almost too feminine to wear something like that," he says.
But one man's issue with girlish dilution is another's corporate survival strategy. I once heard the then-editor of Playboy refer to the "feminization" of the brand. He was talking about how the magazine and its brand extensions could remain relevant in a world of multiplatform, niche porn on demand. This move to capitalize on the brand's appeal to women — a source of feminist handwringing in the last decade — was, in fact, a strategic choice made by Hefner's daughter Christie, whose stint as CEO ended last year. From a 2007 BBC article:
Under her watch, more than 40% of Playboy's senior executives are female, and the company is making a determined effort to appeal to new female customers through its licensing division[.]
And under new CEO Scott Flanders, the company is even more aggressively pursuing licensing to combat the fact that its currently losing millions of dollars. Some of the choices are moving even further away from the Hugh Hefner archetype, even if they technically bear his name — for example, a loveseat designed by Mad Men's Brian Batt, who is known for playing a gay character and is himself gay. So much for dreaming of a harem of blonde ladies.
At least one critic (a woman) has argued that the "death" of the brand went back to the first time the archetypal bunny — previously a symbol of the randy gentleman — was represented in the magazine as a female, way back in 1969. But then again, women had been dressing up as bunnies at the Playboy club since 1960. Fifty years later, you can buy the costume yourself for the first time.
Does all this mean that the brand has lost its potency in part because its retro transgressiveness has disappeared in a thicket of Girls Next Door and tanning spray — or is it an issue of mass culture catching up to Playboy in the mainstreaming of its bawdy-lite products? The loss of Playboy's power doesn't mean a feminist victory; you don't have to look hard to find women's objectification elsewhere. But it does perversely indicate that the quickest way to ruin some guys' fun is to include the ladies.