Sarah Couto | Essays

The Year Playboy Died

Totem Rabbit — (Top, left to right) January 1954, February 1956, October 1957; (Bottom, left to right) March 1958, July 1959 and June 1960

Because of its prodigious ability to reproduce, the rabbit is a natural totem for manhood. Its breeding cycle is fast and its commitment to offspring is minimal. Vigorous females can even release eggs in response to copulation and conceive a second litter whilst pregnant with the first. Cleverly, Playboy adopted a rabbit as its symbol, which endures in the form of art director Art Paul’s ingenious bow-tied logo. In the beginning, Playboy’s covers often depicted a rabbit figure looking like a perfect gentleman. More than a logo or mascot, the rabbit served as a symbolic representation of the reader.

It is often forgotten that the rabbit portrayed on Playboy’s early covers was very much male. Typically, he was an unbridled man, out and about, in good company, as evident on the January 1954 cover — the second issue of the magazine. This same issue also marked the first appearance of the rabbit logo.

It was not until the opening of the Playboy Club in 1960 that the rabbit first appeared in the guise of a woman. Hugh Hefner, the alpha rabbit himself, initially resisted the idea of putting women in rabbit costumes to work as waitresses at the Club. He argued that Playboy’s rabbit is in essence manly. Alas, the female “bunny” prevailed and soon infiltrated the entire fortress. It was the beginning of the company’s promiscuous expansion and licensing. And the point when Playboy lost sight of its reader — and desecrated its totem.

Playboy Enterprises, Inc. became a publicly listed company in 1971. Around this time it launched the first international edition of the magazine and began licensing products (such as air fresheners). This metamorphosis persisted throughout the 1980s, as the company embraced television. Eventually the brand became tired and diluted, and by 1986 Playboy was forced into retreat. Magazine circulation was cut in half, casino licenses were revoked and clubs were shut. By this point, Art Paul, the committed exponent of totemic design, had already ended his prolific tenure as art director. No longer a force of cultural transgression, Playboy was out of touch — and had lost its edge.

Hefner’s publication was originally intended for a Don Juan with a taste for jazz, film, literature and fine wine. Of course, the Frank Sinatras and James Bonds of the world represented a small portion of the readership, but by objectifying the lifestyle of the rabbit, Playboy became aspirational — for both men and women. It was alive and unrepentant, like a libertine cousin of The New Yorker, whose dandy had inspired Playboy’s rabbit. The concept was brought to life by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, for the delight of the accomplished and sophisticated rabbit.

As Playboy knew well, a diligent Don Juan scatters his seeds. So part of the idea was to show a variety of women pursued by male rabbits, from the suburb to the cabaret, won by unremitting charm and wit. The attention of the rabbit was often seen, on the cover, divided between a blond, brunette and redhead. In character too, the first women mimicked life. They were seen, next to the rabbit, as both prey and hunters donning jewels and cars.

The original covers, which frequently depicted the gentleman rabbit, were profoundly relevant to Playboy’s content, a quality that Art Paul deemed essential. In this context, the rabbit served as an invitation to a world perfectly designed for him. Manhood’s totem continued to grace the cover of the magazine for most of the 1960s and occasionally the 70s. This was still a period of greatness, but its form was clearly evolving. As Playboy began to deteriorate, the rabbit was gradually reduced to a detail or silhouette. In effect, readers were challenged to find the identity of the magazine. 

Mascot Rabbit — (Top, left to right) April 1963, March 1969, August 1976; (Bottom, left to right) August 1981, July 1991 and December 2008

The year Playboy symbolically died was 1969, when, for the first time, the gentleman rabbit was omitted from all twelve covers of the magazine. With the disappearance of the rabbit, the reader also vanished from Playboy’s magazine and corridors. The rabbit figure became increasingly more cryptic, until it was totally forgotten. Eventually it was replaced by that oxymoron, the female bunny. The image of the rabbit may still be part of Playboy’s culture, not least in the logo, but the totem has been reduced to an uninspiring mascot.

Without a genuine identity, overlooked by a totem, the magazine became a mere vehicle for other ventures. Today it is coarsely designed to mirror the worst of the lad lifestyle. Magazine circulation may be relatively high, but it is culturally irrelevant. The idea of variety was abandoned in favor of post-mortem Marilyn Monroes and odd celebrities. They pose on covers that are bland and often recycled versions of the archive classics, reflective of Playboy’s inane and retro content.

The original concept of Playboy remains fiercely unique. Nudity may be ubiquitous, but it is rarely combined with substantive (and raw) politics, art and humor. Despite the magazine being the anchor of the company, Playboy seems committed to milking the brand through licensing, gambling and soft-porn material. This strategy has proven disastrous in the past. According to Christie Hefner, soon to be ex-chief executive, people “look to Playboy for glamour, for celebrities.” This belief is a far cry from the initial promise to deliver “humor, sophistication and spice.”

Posted in: Business, Media

Comments [33]

IMO, Playboy is easily the most underutilized brand around.

If Playboy really died in 1969, I'd like to wish the same amount of commercial postmortem success on my business, and all my friends' businesses as well.
Doug Bartow

Good thesis with solid examples, but the last three paragraphs should be cut or used to expand, rather than restate, the central idea.
Erstwhile editor

Originally, Playboy was to be called Stag Party and the mascot was, you guessed it, a stag not the bunny. Its a shame the bunny has retreated into its hole, but it says a lot about the longevity of a good idea. Coming up with those bunny puns on the cover got harder and harder to do, and the readers grew to appreciate them less and less.
steven heller

This facile essay can be distilled to two simple facts:
1. Originally the Playboy rabbit was a male character.
2. Over time, the rabbit morphed into a female character.

There's probably an interesting story about how and why that occurred--but this sure isn't it! Surely there must be reasons why the male bunny changed to female over time.

One problem with the essay is that the additional ideas put forth to expound on those two salient facts do absolutely nothing to support the writer's initial premise: That Playboy is dead. That premise remains unproven. Beyond the author's own unsubstantiated ideas, there is no corroborating evidence or proof offered.

My overall impression here is that the writer's real agenda is to offer a scathing critique of Playboy. It's an agenda which is neither interesting nor original. She tried to camouflage her agenda by touching on the story of the rabbit's gender change--but her real agenda comes through loud and clear to this reader. And, sadly, all she does with the potentially more interesting gender change story is skim the surface. There's no depth, no substance.

I am also utterly baffled by the assertion that the rabbit was a natural totem for manhood thanks to its "prodigious breeding," when, in practically the next sentence, we learn that the prodigious breeding is, in fact, thanks to the female's incredible ability to produce litters quickly. Then later on, we learn that the female rabbit is an "oxymoron." Huh?

Actually, what you mean to say--but can't quite find the right words for--is that the male rabbit was initially the totem for Playboy thanks to his love 'em and leave 'em treatment of the female rabbit. Do you suppose it is possible that, over time, cultural changes actually made that perception and association unpopular, and in fact influenced Playboy to change the rabbit's gender? That really might be something interesting to examine. But, looking at that idea wouldn't have given you a way to grind your ax.

Well, as a teenage boy in the late 70s (when, according to your calendar, Playboy was on life support) I knew exactly what that Playboy rabbit stood for. She was alive and kicking. And, trust me, she was neither male nor an oxymoron.

Rob Henning

It's probably true that Playboy has been played out. From what I have read, there seems to have been more originality, more wit and sophistication in the early years. It is also important to notice that during a time when women's rights were taking huge strides forward, there was also an increase in exploitation—and this seams to have coincided with the rabbits transformation from male to female. I never assigned the rabbit a gender, but having now been informed, I feel that branding—as it is utilized today—may be a more masculine approach to communications problem solving. Perhaps that should be played out some day as well.
John Rudolph

I work for a publisher of posters in Germany. We are selling the playboy bunny, designed in different ways, yet all focussing on the outline of the bunny on a variety of poster sizes. Initially we thought it wasn't worth it to license this brand, but it quickly became one of our bestsellers.

It turns out that young girls in the age of 12 to 16 are linking the bunny with the idea of female beauty. Since they want to be perceived as a pretty girl, they stamp the bunny on their walls.
So while we initially thought the power of the playboy-license was its huge archive of pin-up material (male audience), the real seller turned out to be the bunny brand (female audience).

The playboy magazines might not seem so sophisticated anymore, the playboy brand definitely lives outside the design of current playboy covers, which is quite an achievement of Art Paul.
Lars Geist

Um Rob Henning, if you think this article is a "scathing critique," you clearly haven't been exposed to enough actual scathing critiques.

Lars is right. Young women are sticking the Playboy bunny somewhere on themselves, going into tanning salons, and making temporary 'tattoos' of the white bunny on their bodies, among other things (bunny ears, etc.). The Playboy bunny brand is a powerful thing --- we shouldn't discount it.

Umm, Andrea, there was just enough critical hyperbole ("culturally irrelevant, inane and retro content, the worst of the lad lifestyle," etc.) in the essay that I thought I'd engage in a little of my own. Anyway, I didn't write that it WAS a scathing critique, I wrote that it was my impression that the author's agenda was to offer a scathing critique. It is my assumption that she wanted to critique Playboy, and she wanted to build that critique around the specious premise that the rabbit's gender change spelled Playboy's doom. But, you're right: as scathing critiques go, it is not really very scathing. Nor is it a successful defense of the author's premise.

Meanwhile, what Lars Geist writes from Germany is very interesting: adolescent girls link the bunny symbol to the idea of female beauty. If that's true, it sounds like the "uninspiring mascot" might still be inspiring some segment of the population. The interesting part is that it's an entirely different population than the original seed-sowing male bunny "totem" set out to inspire. Sadly, any in depth analysis of that shift in audience is lost in the strenuous and apparently premeditated attempt to make the case that Playboy is dead.
Rob Henning

Rob Henning: why so defensive? Surely the topic of Playboy is extensive enough that we can accept that all points aren't going to be addressed in a DO post. You write as if the author were attacking what you, as a teenage boy in the 70s, wanted Playboy to be, when she was actually just discussing the bunny as an icon and the many basic ways it has morphed throughout the company's long history.

If you're so interested in the gender breakdown of the icon, it may be worth your time to compare what Playboy was trying to achieve with the recently-dead Playgirl. Then go have a cry wank to FHM.

My point, Elizabeth, is not to defend Playboy. My point is that the author of this essay did a lousy job of presenting information about the way the bunny morphed through history. I am simply exercising my prerogative to say so in this forum. You are free to disagree with me. But, as it is, all you've can offer is to tell me to go masturbate? Yes, that is intelligent, insightful, and, most of all, mature.
Rob Henning

Also, Elizabeth, I don't believe there was any relationship between Playboy and Playgirl.
Rob Henning

When it comes to Playboy, whether it's the magazine, or the institution of the brand, people are either IN, or OUT... Elizabeth here is OUT.

Personally, I've been speaking of the notion that Playboy, in all it's forms, but especially the publication, has been a lame duck for decades... in the sense of vision integrity - Fortunately for them, I suppose, they're still maintaining operations if only because the audience for beautiful nude women will never go away - But that's what has happened - The original vision of an "alternative, hypercool" magazine, if not a virtual membership to a unspoken "club" or society of "badasses" for men - The connoisseurs of all things challenging typical conventions in music, art, literature, film, fashion, and of course, sex, just another part of a man's life (which by the way, isn't gender-exclusive, just in this case, the magazine was meant for the fellas) - In addition to the obvious photographic essays (which they were for all intents and purposes) featuring beautiful "cool" women in various forms of undress, Playboy hunted cool for the reader from all corners of the globe - and in retrospect, it's list of contributing authors, featured artists, musician interviews, fashion pieces, etc, etc, are right up the ilk of other institutional publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly or Harper's Bazaar.

I believe what happened to Playboy, when it "died" as Ms. Couto strongly states, is that as the world began to change enough to where certain fears, lifestyles, technologies, and other absolute factors changed the face of America's younger male audience, and Mr. Hefner wasn't able to bridge the gap between his mastery of "classic cool" and the new emerging cult of cool - What was "cool" wasn't cool at all... and what was genuinely on the fringes, was just out of Playboy's reach - Yet, the one component of the Playboy lifestyle remained constant and will always remain: the heterosexual male's attraction to the female form. And so the "sex" component reigned supreme, if not entirely transforming the brand increasingly through the 80's, very strongly in the 90's, and currently here in the first decade of the 21st century, during times of transition and paradigm shifts in industries connected to Playboy (publishing, the internet, sex & entertainment business) where will it end up?

I've often said that I long for the "golden age" of Playboy - If only if were still the "exclusive club" it used to be (and there WAS a Playboy Club, but, even then, the brand was loosing it's sincere sheen and becoming synthetic) - The publication itself would have to undergo a complete overhaul, from editorial direction to creative direction, but alas, that's just my opinion (and oh what a gig, to redesign Playboy magazine, wow).

Alexander Flores

The author foregrounds two characteristics:

(1) The Playboy identity (often represented by the bow-tied bunny in a smoking jacket, but also done through cultural markers of 'jazz, film, literature and fine wine') was something the reader was to identify with, but over time has received much less prominence in the magazine.

(2) Bunny iconography (ears and a tail or whatever, I assume), from early on, was not reserved for the gentleman bunny but applied to the female object of desire as well. This gave the reader a sexualized female object that was associated with the magazine and brand (it wasn't just an attractive body like in every other skin book, it was a 'Playboy bunny').

The author concludes that the brand's dilution is a function of (1) as the contemporary reader has no ties of identity to the magazine. As evidence she provides magazine covers, which early on showed the gentleman rabbit in situations with the object of desire. Currently they just show the playmate in a swimsuit or some other sexualized imagery. Without the flattering persona to identify with, the reader is less invested in Playboy.

The references to 'totem' are clever but perhaps not necessary and less well supported than (1) and (2).


There Rob, that's a decent analysis I did in about 10 minutes. I did it without reducing and misreading the thesis (or taking the title as the thesis statement); without accusing the author of having some 'real agenda' which she tried to 'camouflage' (such deception!); and without telling the author 'what she really meant to say'. In other words, I took her argument on its own merits instead of making up strawmen.

Hmmm...never knew that about the Play boy bunny. Always assumed it was a gal from word go.

Nicely put, Ralphy. But, I think you neglected to "foreground" one of the author's key points: that Playboy is dead. Perhaps you think that's NOT one of her key points, but I do. I don't think I misread--rather, I think you misread if you missed that point! It's the conflation of that point (which remains unproven) with her examination of the rabbit's gender change which makes the essay so weak. Neither of the two subjects is very well developed, so the attempt to make a connection between them fails. Maybe I should be a little kinder and overlook the hyperbolic assertion that Playboy has died. It becomes a much better essay if I am willing to do that. But I'm not. It's that hyperbole that takes the essay out of the realm of interesting and well written and into a much different realm.

P.S. "Foreground" is not a verb.
Rob Henning

As companies, no, Playgirl and Playboy were not related; the similarities and differences regarding presenting gender and porn, however, are a worthy examination.

P.S. "I've often said that I long for the "golden age" of Playboy - If only if were still the "exclusive club" it used to be (and there WAS a Playboy Club, but, even then, the brand was loosing it's sincere sheen and becoming synthetic)"


its ≠ it's

I think declaring Playboy "dead" is a pretty first world centric viewpoint.
The Playboy meme, the mythos of it, is still alive and well all over the world.
The same way you can find actual steelmills that were once in Pennsylvania, now operating in China, you can find Playboy air fresheners hanging from rear view mirrors in Java, Playboy stickers on buses in Bolivia, Playboy logos (unauthorized, of course) on T shirts in equatorial Africa.

Once we move on to Priuses and Whole Foods, we assume the entire world does too, but there is a lag time, a trickle down effect, which is actually a very interesting cultural phenomena.

This is not to say that any of Hefners new babies will necessarily profit from this- but the underlying macho ethic of playboy, the naive happy sexism of it, is still percolating down to the cultural acquifers all over the world, and probably still will be for another 50 years.

But no, its certainly not hip, or even refreshingly retro, anymore in the first world.

I agree with Ries - Playboy as a brand is alive and kicking, even if its original mission has been lost. My uncle bought me Playboy-branded sunglasses in China when I was visiting. It's interesting to see the reaction it evokes here in the US—from outright shock to amusement to nostalgia.

I'm still pretty young so I don't recall the hey-day of Playboy, but I know that of my generation it is still a very relevant, very loaded word.

As for the gender of the bunny, I've always seen it as both. I don't think of the loss of focus on the male totem is a knell of doom for the brand, but rather a recognition that it could be expanded/elaborated/fantasized upon. In any case, it is the rabbit species that is promiscuous, not just the male. It takes both genders to make a litter.

Hmm... overall I think it's more interesting to actually debate over the meaning of the word "dead" rather than just arguing over whether it really has "died" or "isn't dead." =) Isn't language fun.


Er, that last one was me. I can't believe DO actually let me post without any credentials. O_o

I thought Playboy bunnies were the offspring of the male rabbit with the bow-tie (in logo)?
Kara Clark

Like Kara, I always saw the rabbit in the logo and the "bunnies" as separate entities. I guess this dichotomy is also part of Playboy's problem.

these comment battles are almost more interesting than the article itself. entertaining.. how we defend and criticize on blogs.
i would love to read an article on that.

@ urbanfish

would be interesting,
also i would love to read the comments on that article.

I think the author's perspective is saying that Playboy's relevance is equal to it's vitality. Playboy's relevance to the 18-35 male readership and to the college-age female has been lost since the late 70s when Playboy decidedly went in the direction of sex over content with its magazine and brand name.
For the 50s, 60s and early part of the 70s; Playboy was a mentality and a mythos to follow rather than a brand. When the editorial leadership failed to find its relevance in the age of feminism of the 70s and the commercialism of 80s. Now, with sex permeating every facet of our general media (TV, Internet, Music); Playboy has just become another "dick mag" with fluff for content and no guts to step out and explore any aspect of the truly "cool."

Yes, the brand is alive and well for both males and females. For the men, its cool to have a Playboy mag in your bathroom or the bar book at your frat party. For women of SoCal or wannabe SoCal women, its become a past symbol of all things of feminine beauty. The brand really isn't relevant to a whole lot of women because silicone, bottle blonde hair, and airbrushed photography doesn't really speak to them. However, if you do talk to some women when asked about Playboy they find the "retro Playboy" brand appealing because the women who appeared in the pages were truly "girls next door" in their looks. In other words, you can't really Photoshop the women of the 50s and 60s.

If Playboy can find some culpability with the retro side and today, it might have hope of being the magazine it once was. However, as stated previously, it would take a major overhaul of the entire brand from top to bottom. It really has sunk to the lows of Maxim, FHM, and so on without those brands' amounts of readership.

Your gay, get angry playboy sucks

Hugh is the rabbit. The rabbit is Hugh.

I realize that I am coming late to this debate but I can't pass up the opportunity to make a couple of comments. I must first go on record to say that I have been a subscriber to Playboy since the 1970s. But I am not here to defend the magazine, only to add my opinion to this assessment of its "demise".

First, while the article is an interesting one I think that the gender transition of the fuzzy rabbit is not really to blame for the "death" of Playboy. It is not a brand identity issue at all. The problem for Playboy was that the lifestyle it championed became less relevant to the generation of the '60s and '70s. The "cool" rabbit of the '50s could not compete with the sex, drugs and rock and roll that followed in his wake. While Playboy may have started the sexual revolution, it took on a life of its own and left Playboy behind. Mr. Hefner became part of the Establishment and was no longer perceived as a social rebel by anyone under the age of 30.

Over the years, Playboy has made attempts to remain young and hip but these have often seemed as silly as the chubby, middle-aged guy with a pony-tail and an earring hitting on a woman half his age at a club playing music from a band he has never heard of. The aging Mr. Hefner's continued presence in the magazine does not help this problem.

The cool lifestyle factor that Playboy initially possessed would have been far more at home in the materialism of the '80s and '90s but by then the magazine was less than unique and was no longer the critical voice in issues of sex and morality that it had been. As many commentators here have stressed its editorial foundation seemed to be more and more about sex—albeit somewhat reserved sex—and less about a particular lifestyle.

When I say "reserved" I am commenting on perhaps the biggest problem for Playboy: the wide-spread availability of extremely graphic pornography. This huge influx of pornographic imagery makes the Playboy centerfold seem almost quaint. With hardcore pornography available on almost every newsstand, Playboy's sexual content has overwhelming competition and because it no longer has the unique editorial voice it once had it gets thrown into the heap with the other "pornies".

By the way, I am not advocating hardcore at all. I think Playboy's resistance to going all the way into hardcore is commendable but this is still a problem for them. To make matters worse, articles about sex now regularly appear in such old-fashioned magazines as Redbook, and ads for body-washes feature women nearly as nude a Playboy centerfold. The magazine is just not cutting-edge and hasn't been for years.

But how to climb back to the premier spot it once had so long ago? Maybe better design might help...

Since this is a design forum, I think that it must be said that one of the biggest reasons that Playboy is less than relevant today is because it looks like every other magazine on the stands. Here is the real brand identity issue. There is no difference between the average Playboy cover and the average Cosmo cover. Both feature provocative images of women almost completely covered with screaming headlines barking for articles inside. Nothing clever or creative. For the most part the interior of the magazine follows suit. In a sea of loud and colorful magazines shouting for attention on a newsstand rack, nothing separates Playboy from the crowd, not even its name and recognizable masthead.

So if you really must know, Playboy "died" when Art Paul left. His cover designs were exceptional and he is as responsible for Playboy's early success as Hugh Hefner was. And to think, he did it without Photoshop.

This is what your criticism should *really* have been about!

Rhea from the sadly former Women's Alliance Against Pornography Education Project in Cambridge,back in January 1993 sent me many cartoons from Playboy and Penthouse of women being sexually harassed,used and sexually servicing their male bosses in the work place and they are horrible!

I asked her what are these cartoons from,she said they are from Playboy and Penthouse. I said what are the men doing to women in the cartoons,are they raping them.She said yeah,they are all different things,you will have to see for yourself and then she said,they're pretty bad.

The Women's Alliance Against Pornography put their own captions under the cartoons under a Penthouse cartoon of a man saying to his boss,who is holding a photocopy of just a woman's huge breasts with no head,"This is my Christmas bonus? A xerox photo of your secretary's t**s?" The Women's Alliance Against Pornography wrote that Porn reduces women to the make-up of her body parts.

This comment exceeds 3500 words and has been cut back by the Editors...

Pornography is extremely sexist and woman-hating and it teaches and normalizes sick distortions of women,men and sexuality,and it sexualizes male supremacy,sexist gender inequality,male dominance,women's subordination and submission to men,,male supremacy objectification and dehumanization of women as only sex objects to be used,ejac*lated all over,and disgarded, for men,often calls women woman-hating names like s***s,b******,and w***** and even male violence!

And because it sexualizes and normalizes all of these sick things and sexist injustices, and has been wrongly mainstreamed and made acceptable in a sexist sick woman-hating male dominated society,that created and normalized it in the first place,more women are sadly disturbingly being influenced to think this is what normal hetrosexuality is,and it teaches men that this is what women want and like, and that they want to be treated by them this way! Attitudes like yours really make any hope for change seem hopless!

Many men who used to use pornography when they were younger who are now anti-pornography anti-sexist anti-male violence educators include, former all star high school football player Jackson Katz who wrote the great important book,The Macho Paradox How Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help and he writes about how pornography sexualizes men's power,woman hatred,sexual objectification and dehumanization and subordination of women,and this is all connected to male violence,and gender inequality,and how the pornography industry has sold this woman-hatred and men's power as normal and liberating to the public.

This comment exceeds 3500 words and has been cut back by the editors...

Playboy died in 1969?

Sad to hear it, as the biggest selling issue in Playboy history was November 1972, with a cover that I photographed featuring model Pam Rawlings.
Rowland Scherman

Jobs | July 12