Back in the golden days, Playboy used to be everywhere. Its best-selling edition sold over 7 million copies. But Hugh Hefner is dead, the original Playboy Clubs have ended, and magazine sales have narrowed to less than 4% of what they used to be.
In 1953, former copywriter Hugh Hefner noticed a demand for a gentleman’s magazines. Recruiting 45 investors who gathered together $8,000, a young Hef was able to launch what would become Playboy. With no office space to work, Hef put the first edition of Playboy together in his apartment on the kitchen counter. The cover and centerfold starred Marilyn Monroe. Hefner purchased old photos a struggling Monroe had modeled for under an alias, having no idea they would ultimately end up as a magazine feature. The star was never paid for her Playboy appearance.
Although, the first issue was issued in December 1953. The magazine sold out of all 70,000 prints at $0.50 each. Hefner directly invested his profits back into Playboy, expanding his organization. Distribution grew quickly, partially because of the magazine’s absence of competition. But not only was Playboy one of the first to issue colored photographs of nude women, but its Playmate idea also set it apart from the rest. Each issue highlighted a “Playmate of the month,” starting with Hefner’s then-girlfriend and subscription-department agent Charlaine Karalus.
By the end of the 1950s, the magazine was marketing a million copies a month. The magazine even had established respect for literary excellence, publishing in-depth discussions with all sorts of cultural icons and citations from esteemed writers like James Baldwin. Even when its first real competitor, Penthouse, launched, Playboy stayed on top, with print sales towering at 7.1 million copies of the November 1972 issue. Playboy made $12 million in profit the same year. Playboy developed to be more than a magazine; it was a lifestyle. Hefner extended Playboy Enterprises to include the Playboy Clubs, designed to represent the glamorous and luxurious lifestyle marketed by the magazine.
Despite their early progress, all the Playboy Clubs were closed down by 1986. They had been wasting money for years. The changing social and political environment shifted public perception of the clubs. Rather than being daring, the clubs were now seen as degrading to women. And the increase of 1980s video porn was giving the print magazine competition. As magazines like Stuff and Maxim joined the market, distribution continued to decline through the ’90s. Playboy also made the lethal mistake of not going online fast enough.
When Hefner passed away in 2017, Playboy appeared directionless, and investors had been spending money for decades. With distribution at an all-time low and reported losses of $7 million a year, the magazine was scaled back to publish only quarterly.
In September 2018, complete with servers dressed as bunnies, and the magazine is rebranding to attract a younger generation. A lot has changed since Hugh Hefner started Playboy, and it’s unclear whether it’ll endure. But there is forever the logo, and that is a billion-dollar legacy.