The introduction to this book is headlined with the “Warning: This Book is Not about Sex.” And indeed it isn’t, because it is all about marketing – using the example of the Playboy brand and of its founder, Hugh Hefner. The book’s author tells the story of how the Playboy brand was built up – and cites the story as a particularly accomplished case of branding.
Naturally, this is the interpretation of a marketing specialist, whereas Hugh Hefner himself acted the way he did not in response to market analyses but by following gut instinct and getting its right (the author herself admits that a thorough market evaluation, had Hugh Hefner bothered to commission one, would probably have concluded that his magazine project was bound to flop, see p. 21).
From an early age, Hefner had had a penchant for writing and a passion for newspapers. At the age of eight or nine, he wrote his own paper and sold it door to door for one cent per issue. In his early professional life, he changed jobs often, never lasting long in any given place. In 1953, he decided to start his own magazine, one that would cover all the subject areas that personally interested him. “Hefner never believed Playboy was a magazine about sex. On the contrary, Hefner believed from the beginning that Playboy was a lifestyle magazine for young men that offered a glimpse into a fantasy world which was actually attainable” (p. 12).
Since the name he originally had in mind, “Stag Party,” was already taken, he named his magazine Playboy. He took out a loan over 600 dollars – pledging his furnishings as collateral – and borrowed another 7400 dollars from family and friends, thus starting out with 8000 dollars. There was no money for an advertising or marketing campaign. Instead, he had a brilliant idea that got him more attention than any normal ad campaign would have: In a clever move, he bought unpublished nudes of Marilyn Monroe (for just 600 dollars) and published them in the first issue of the magazine. So the very first issue was a success, selling 56,000 copies. A year later, each issue had a print run of 185,000. By 1959 each issue already sold 1.1 million copies.
“The magazine offered an opportunity for people to live and think in a different way, and Playboy told them there was nothing wrong with them for living and thinking this way” (p. 13). From the start, Playboy clearly positioned itself, which, in addition to making a statement of what you are, included stating what you are not. Hefner put it this way: “We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion” (p. 15).
From the start, Hefner got into trouble, running afoul of the US Mail, the FBI, and the moral values prevailing in the United States at the time. Yet ultimately he benefited from the conflicts, and the touch of the forbidden did him more good than harm. “Playboy is the perfect example of how something that is forbidden or deemed inappropriate becomes more desirable than it may have been without the negative publicity surrounding it” (p. 25).
Hefner also knew how to build up himself as a brand. The art of self-marketing was certainly one of the key components of his success. In the 1950s – following his divorce – he himself began to live the life of a playboy, becoming a brand champion on which the readers of his magazine projected their own unfulfilled desires and yearnings.
At the same time, he also managed to gain social recognition because he became increasingly successful in persuading celebrities to have interviews reprinted in Playboy, including Frank Sinatra, Albert Schweitzer, Salvador Dali, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, among many others. He also got acclaimed writers to contribute to his magazine, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, or John Irving (pp. 56-57).
Of course, the book also covers the difficult years for the magazine in detail – with the author arguing that it ultimately overcame these crises only because Hefner had managed to build up an extraordinarily powerful brand. R.Z.