Playboy has decided to stop being Playboy.
The men's magazine founded 62 years ago by Hugh Hefner has announced that beginning with its March 2016 issue, it no longer will publish photos or cartoons of fully nude women.
Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told the New York Times the ready availability of free pornography on the Web had made the magazine's erotic content passé.
Playboy, which has a long tradition of publishing literary fiction, celebrity interviews, and high-quality journalism, will retool itself as a men's magazine for the 18-to-30 age market, a niche dominated by so-called lad's mags such as FHM and Maxim. Circulation has dropped from a high of 5.6 million in 1975 to the current level of about 800,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.
"It's a very smart business move because their old niche is simply gone," said Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. "I think they'd like to become the Cosmo [Cosmopolitan magazine] for men."
But would it still be Playboy?
"Hugh Hefner once said in a meeting" in the 1980s, said Dines, "if you take the pictures out of the magazine, it will die like a dead dog.'
The magazine's writing may yet save it, said Fabienne Darling-Wolf, who teaches media studies at Temple University. Despite the oft-told joke, "I read it for the articles," in fact the magazine has created a tradition of high-profile writing by artists of excellence, some of the most glittering names in literature, including Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood, and Kurt Vonnegut.
"In terms of its intellectual and journalistic excellence," she said, "I don't think Playboy's cultural effect has diminished."
Some media observers met the news with a shrug. "It's been a long time since it has been . . . relevant," said Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.
"Playboy did play an extremely important role historically because it broke open a cultural space for the sexual exploitation of women in the mainstream," said Jensen. "Now, it's just a footnote."
Playboy magazine was launched in December 1953 with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. Inside, it featured a now-famous Monroe nude that had been shot by Tom Kelley for the John Baumgarth Calendar Co.
"The first issue didn't have a date on it, because they never thought there would be a second one," said Dines, who is chair of the American studies department at Wheelock College in Boston. "Hugh Hefner thought he'd be in jail. But it sold out spectacularly and quickly."
Hefner's creation taught men how to spend money and made an overt link between consumerism and sexual gratification, said Jensen.
Dines said the reason Playboy thrived during one of the century's most conservative decades was that it taught men to enjoy the economic boom. The articles focused on goods men could buy to show off their sophistication as upwardly mobile professionals.
"Here there was a new generation of upper-middle-class men who were brought up during the Depression and World War II who were frugal, yet they now had all this discretionary income," she said.
"So Playboy taught men how to buy . . . the right suit, the right desk, the right furniture. It told them it's OK to be hedonistic."
The photo spreads reinforced the idea of buying as pleasure. "Playboy in effect told men, 'If you consume to the level we suggest, you will get the ultimate prize, you will get the woman we feature in the centerfold,' " said Dines.
Playboy's decline and its decision not to publish pornographic images isn't a victory for women, said Darling-Wolf.
"I think part of the reason we don't need Playboy is that the objectification of women has become so much part of the culture that is no longer special to do it."