Playboy: branding genius or backwards message?

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With the Hugh Hefner, questions remain about the Playboy brand? Was it a stroke of liberating genius, or backwards and oppressive?

Last week Hugh Hefner, the man behind the infamous Playboy enterprise died at the age of 91. There have been mixed reactions to his death, from deep sorrow on the passing of a pioneer, to setting off the party poppers at the riddance of a misogynistic sex maniac. But what about the Playboy brand? Was it a stroke of liberating genius or a backwards and oppressive message?

If you were to ask anyone over the age of about 16 if they knew what Playboy was they would absolutely be able to tell you. It’s a powerful and globally recognised brand focusing on a subject that even nowadays is a bit taboo. He made the topic of sex and pornography (along with some pretty decent articles if you look at the older Playboy mags) far more mainstream.

Challenging the norm

Launching the magazine in 1953 would not have been the easiest feat. Sex in 1953 was just something that wasn’t talked about. People went to extraordinary lengths to not even use the word ‘sex’ and sex was only ever acceptable as part of the duty of marriage. Outside of marriage? Unless you wanted to be ostracised from your community you had no business knowing anything about it – especially if you were a woman. You were to remain ‘pure’

Hefner basically looked at these rather prudish values and nuked it from orbit with the first edition of the Playboy Magazine featuring the ultimate pin-up girl – Marilyn Monroe. His magazine meant sex was more acceptable, more accessible and began to buck some of the more prudish 1950’s values. However, with all the changes Hefner pioneered in attitudes towards sex, there are many including myself, who don’t quite see the sexual ‘freedom’ Hefner supposedly pioneered.

Freedom or empowerment?

Women featured in the magazines were very much still portrayed as objects for the pleasure of others. The Marilyn Monroe scandal is a perfect example – the images displayed in the magazine were images taken before she was famous and was trying to get on the acting scene. The images were used without her consent or knowledge and almost ruined her career. She had to make a public apology to keep her good reputation.

To Hefner it appears that Monroe was nothing more than an object that could easily be exploited. It might have been different if he’d asked to feature her and she agreed – but why would he want her thoughts on the matter when her thoughts were not what she was in the magazine for? And even more crucially – her thoughts on the matter didn’t match the brand.

Dr Thekla Morgenroth sums up the thoughts of many individuals who didn’t quite see the sexual revolution as a 100% positive thing: “He did not empower women. He gave them just one more restrictive role to choose from.”

The ultimate brand champion

The Playboy brand has endured a lot of scandals and down points: 9.00pm curfews, financial abuse, alienation of the girls who worked at the mansion from friends and family, even a murder has been linked to the brand. But the brand has endured and it’s because of one crucial thing. It had a brand champion who never wavered from the party line.

Hefner stood behind his brand through thick and thin. He completely embodied the brand – it was his life. The brand builds a relationship with its audience, connecting with them, growing with them (it’s 64 years old – people have actually grown up with the brand) and promoting the sharing of their experience with others. Brands who manage to create this relationship successfully have an exceptionally loyal fan base, which turns in to loyal customers and a profitable business in the case of Playboy.

From a branding perspective, it’s a job well done. From every other perspective – it’s exceptionally questionable.

If you would like to find out more about building a strong brand identity (minus the fluffy bunny tails) get in touch with Elastic.

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