Playboy Attempts ME-Generation Values

by Jeff Sexton on November 21, 2013

ME-cycles values match the ME-cycle times: this November 1972 issue marked the highpoint for magazine circulation. Can Playboy rebrand for a WE-generation?

Is this a centerfold age like the 1960s and ’70s? Or even a pin-up age like the 1950s?

The folks at Playboy sure hope so. Once a conversation-starter, and even a social force, Playboy largely fell out of step with the times in the 2000s and has lately been scrambling to engage today’s changing reader while trying to adapt to this generation’s cultural values.

Playboy launched in 1953 and was an Alpha Voice for what would become the emerging ME-cycle in 1963. The magazine threw off the constraints of conformity, duty and community-mindedness – the WE-generation values that were on the downswing when the magazine first hit newsstands – to embrace what it called the Playboy Philosophy.

Hugh Hefner, Playboy’s founder, proclaimed this philosophy starting in 1962 though columns and essays that largely amounted to:

…an ongoing rant calling for free speech, the separation of church and state, and the need for modern “heroes.” Hef lamented the denigration of the “Uncommon Man” during the lean years of the 1930s when aspirations were ground down by economic depression. This, he felt, had boosted mediocrity. Typifying the postwar economic boom and Cold War ideology, Hef celebrated the merits of free-enterprise capitalism, individualism, and free expression as forces that would nurture the heroic “Uncommon Man.”                              – “The Playboy Philosophy Turns 40,” The Brooklyn Rail

You couldn’t create a more accurate description of ME-generation values if you tried: heroes, the uncommon man, free expression, individualism, etc.

It’s little wonder that the magazine rode the rising tide of the new generation to its peak popularity in the mid 1970s (the magazine had its highest circulation in 1972), continued to be popular well into the ’80s and ’90s, but then found itself increasingly culturally irrelevant in the 2000s as society became less about the uncommon man and more about the common good.

Our cultural values changed, and Playboy either had to change with them or fade away. It faded. By the end of the 2003-2008 transition from the last ME to our current WE Cycle, the value of the company would plummet from $1 billion to $84 million. In 2010 Hugh Hefner even sold his English manor house to raise money to step in and buy the business back from its shareholders for $207 million.

So, what now?

According to a recent article in Slate, Playboy is attempting to get in step with WE Generation values.

Playboy says it’s ditched the bleached-blond airhead cliché long associated with being a “Playmate,” and has adopted a multicultural and more WE-centric view of beauty: For example, the 2013 Playmate of the Year is Mexican-American.

With what seems to be a rather scripted approach to increased “authenticity,” Playboy has also embraced what its CEO Scott Flanders calls the Three G’s:

“We’re moving toward what we’re calling the three G’s: God-given gorgeous, with no artificial enhancements,” Flanders explained. “I’m sorry—no obvious artificial enhancements.” “I prefer to call it Darwin-given gorgeous,” editorial director Jimmy Jellinek said. “The magazine used to have this aesthetic of unattainable perfection” that prompted “unhealthy competition” among women, he said. It hopes to appeal to men and women alike with a “more healthy, naturalistic look.”
– “Women Want Sex,” Slate

So Playboy claims to be embracing inclusiveness and authenticity, while moving away from the “unattainable perfection” and “unhealthy competition” of outmoded ME Cycle values.

Will this be too little, too late? And is it sincere, or just posturing?

It doesn’t really matter. The point is that companies that persist in operating counter to cultural values in our current WE social cycle will suffer. As with Playboy, every brand has the same choice:  change with the times or fade into irrelevance.

What’s your choice going to be?

Jeff Sexton

View all posts by Jeff Sexton

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