EDITORIAL: Hugh Hefner’s desperation

Playboy hasn’t aged well

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It’s not all fun and games at the Playboy mansion anymore. On Friday, it was reported that married Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre sent vulgar messages and pictures to Playboy pinup Jennifer Sterger, now a sports reporter, to try to entice her into a tryst. On the same day, prosecutors in Jakarta issued an arrest warrant for Erwin Arnada, former editor of Playboy’s Indonesian edition. He faces two years in prison after the Indonesian Supreme Court found him guilty of violating the archipelago’s laws against indecency. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a trial continues to try to place blame for the various addictions that led to the 2007 overdose death of Anna Nicole Smith, one of Playboy’s most famous centerfolds.

On top of all the week’s sordid tales is a load of business challenges for the adult magazine founded by Hugh Hefner in 1953. For the first six months of this year, circulation fell to 1.63 million, a drop of 34 percent from 2009, and numbers continue to decline. Recent trends are part of a steady sales collapse from Playboy’s peak circulation of 7.2 million in 1972, which has resulted in ad revenue bottoming out. The company’s net loss totaled $156 million in 2008. Though red-ink spillage has slowed, vulnerability due to mounting losses attracted some unwanted advances from the owner of Penthouse magazine, a competitor. Mr. Hefner was so desperate to thwart a takeover bid that he offered to gobble up all remaining shares of the company he took public 40 years ago.

In such an industry, it wouldn’t be accurate to call this a fall from grace, but it certainly represents a diminution of the Hef’s legend. Mr. Hefner originally sold himself as the personification of modern cosmopolitan chic freed from the puritanical handcuffs of traditional morality. The old quip that guys check out Playboy “for the articles” reflected a marketing vision that tied a swinger lifestyle to luxurious toys such as sports cars, avant-garde art, high fashion and cutting-edge electronic equipment. The twisted message was that it’s sophisticated to be corrupt. For a culture becoming increasingly permissive in the 1960s, the Playboy life offered a dark reverse image of Victorianism, when propriety and public morality - even feigned - were the social standard.

All the sweet nothings promised by the sexual revolution backfired. Instead of a free-love utopia, the Age of Aquarius is responsible for skyrocketing rates of abortion, venereal disease, broken marriages, out-of-wedlock births and the poverty that comes hand-in-hand with social decay. Although more intangible, it’s not coincidental that people also became less courteous. After all, it’s not possible to respect and objectify someone at the same time, a rule which ultimately undermines Mr. Hefner’s carefully crafted myth of himself as a kind of highbrow gentleman pornographer. Diminishing virtue leaves us all more coarse.

The moral of this immoral story is that when you live by the smut, you die by the smut. The debasement promoted by Playboy ran amok to the point where the bunny in the bowtie isn’t enough anymore. Today’s porn consumers aren’t interested in the articles and they want their product smarmier, demands more readily supplied by the Internet and pay-per-view than dead-tree skin mags. At 84, Mr. Hefner still goes clubbing in silk pajamas, clinging to a coterie of buxom blondes. Neither the dirty old man nor his filthy business model has aged gracefully.

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