Playboy version 2011 is relaunching in South Africa in April. It is not the first time Hugh Hefner’s long-lived magazine has graced shelves in this country. It was closed down then, but is about to re-emerge, 15 years after it was shut down, as a player on the local scene in what is a pretty scary time for magazines. Paul Kerton, editor of the 1990s Playboy, and Peter Piegl, editor of the latest one, talk about the magazine….that’s not just about the girls.
What I did with Playboy was try and build a reputation for good investigative journalism with local pieces like; “The Despicable acts of Government Ministers”, and “We buy an AK-47 for R1 000”, while strengthening the lifestyle elements – fashion, travel, hi-tech, even décor and humour… to counter balance the four sets of girlie pics we had every month – celebrity, centrefold, group and quirky (fetish). Playboy was going great guns with 200-page issues and a regular monthly sale of 96 000 (rising to 120 000 with the Anneline Kriel cover in Dec 1994 with her shot against the new SA flag.) Although readers moaned that she didn’t show anything and I was voted Hustler’s Asshole of the month! We were selling so well that the Publisher “guaranteed” advertisers a monthly circulation of 85 000, which was unheard of.
When I first arrived in SA we had to put stars on the nipples and we couldn’t show anything of the girls’ naughty bits down below. Coming from London this was like stepping back 300 years. The big four magazines were Hustler selling about 220 000, Scope selling about 250 000, and Playboy and Penthouse consistently neck and neck at about 96 000 each. This was before they ratified the Constitution. Once the National Constitution came out it said basically that “anybody can read and do what they want in their own home” and overnight the stars came off, the private bits were blasted across the covers and the whole “porn” industry plumbed the depths. Hustler went full on, Scope and Penthouse followed more cautiously.
The thing about Playboy is, it has never been a hard porn magazine, it tries to maintain a certain elegance and charm (dignity believe it or not), despite showing girls with their legs open, and it is surrounded by award-winning editorial. Problem was, the Hustler crowd started importing serious porn from Europe and the USA and flooding the cafes with it, and the genius, Joe Theron, started his Hustler shops. Consequently there was a huge backlash and various protest and religious groups became increasingly influential.
Suddenly we had a problem. From 13 750 outlets selling Playboy we went down to about 3 000. Basically little old ladies would fill a trolley with groceries, go to the till and say, “I was going to buy all these groceries but now I’m not because you are selling dirty magazines”. Of course they couldn’t remember “Asian Babes”, “Fleshpots,” “Big’n’Busty” and “Teen Titties,” but they could remember Playboy even if Playboy wasn’t on the shelf. They also wrote protest letters to advertisers. The cigarette guys were unfazed, but SAA started getting nervous.
So the writing was on the wall and our circ fell dramatically from 96 000 to about 35 000 a month, which was about the time management started to focus on less controversial magazines like Out There and the launch of Elle, distancing themselves from Playboy.
The big mistake we made was trying to appease the anti-porn lobby. We spent a fortune advertising to people who didn’t read Playboy, explaining that Playboy wasn’t as bad as they thought. What we should have done was say, bugger you lot, be a Playboy reader and be proud of it. Unfortunately it closed in 1996. Luckily I started the next day on Men’s Health.
Now, you have to remember that this was in an era when a) porn was new to the country, b) the Internet had hardly started and c) there was a huge amount of tobacco advertising and booze advertising about. So, given that TODAY there is really sophisticated porn on the Internet (so a friend told me), there is no tobacco advertising and the booze boys are severely limited, and there is very little else with money that wouldn’t prefer to go into Men’s Health and GQ first, the big question is:
WILL PLAYBOY 2 BE A SUCCESS?
And the answer, I am sad to say is, although I admire anyone who has the balls to produce a magazine or start a business and I wish them every success, I really can’t see it happening.
Well, apart from all the above, I do feel that Playboy itself is a dated concept. Men have moved on, well MOST men. I can’t see your smart modern metropolitan business guy or young exec getting on a plane and opening Playboy no matter how well they dress it up editorially? Sat in an aisle seat studying Miss March’s beaver and 38 double D’s while some divine babe takes the seat next to him… It sets completely the wrong tone.
Also, there isn’t much you can do with the content in terms of revolutionising the editorial. Playboy has quite strict editorial guidelines laid down and policed by Hugh – who still is Editor in Chief. I can’t quite see what they can add to the editorial mix to make it a compelling purchase, unless the new team are a serious bunch of editorial and marketing geniuses (which I sincerely hope they are). Also, showing local celebs naked has been done by FHM whose circ has dropped considerably in line with other global girl’s-and-booze men’s magazines. Even those guys who unashamedly admit to buying Playboy for the girlie photos have grown tired of that classic pneumatic-airbrushed presentation. Everybody is now Internet-literate and the Internet provides for far wider, cheaper and more modern and exciting porn choices.
I wish them luck, but can’t see it. I hope they prove me wrong.