Bunnies without bounce

Playboy UK is rebranding itself for the internet porn market, and the magazine has lost its cool edge as a result, mourns Martin Deeson
Click to follow

Now, however, the magazine is uninspiring, with its formulaic shoots of soft-focus celebrities, limp jokes and short stories. Playboy has become a brand that, sometimes uncomfortably, straddles the world of hardcore porn (via its TV and internet services) and cutesy bunny ears-branded teen wear.

The clubs have gone, the casinos have gone and, in the States, Playboy magazine is hitting a historic low as it is squeezed at both ends by Maxim and FHM (which are not classified as "top shelf") and by the internet (which provides more and harder content for those who aren't just reading it for the articles).

Playboy is not what it was - a lifestyle empire with a great magazine at the top of the pyramid. It has become diluted and over-merchandised until it stands for little more than a parallel version of the worst of hip-hop culture, all bling and no substance.

And so to try and make sense of this: Playboy UK has re-launched itself as "a digital multimedia entertainment company with a presence in every portal". The new brand integrates the "full suite" of Playboy products (six Playboy television channels, the newly launched website www.playboy.co.uk) and, of course, the magazine. According to Richard Gale, director of marketing and sales, this collective offering brings the consumer "an array of exclusive lifestyle benefits".

According to the chief executive Jeremy Yates, this re-branding is a reaction to "user demand for a single billing point for TV, online and magazine services". At Playboy, they are very excited about "convergence" - that one day we will all have one box to unite all our pornographic needs - but until that time it is enough that they can "deliver content wherever you want it", or, in other words, deliver adult entertainment to your television, your computer, your phone, your PDA or your portable games machine. But does anyone actually want to watch porn on their phone?

And where does the magazine fit into all this? Subscribers to the full digital package (£36pm) receive Playboy magazine as part of the deal - but it seems like an afterthought, a bonus for the viewer, rather than anything the company is focusing on. This seems to be the view shared by the magazine's editorial offices in New York. "Yes, the magazine is bundled with Playboy UK as a promotion, but it is just that, a promotion," says a spokeswoman, when I ask to speak to someone from the editorial side. "Because of the differing explicitness of content in various territories we would probably not want to comment further on the magazine in relation to this re-branding."

It seems there is some tension within the bunny empire between the explicit hardcore content of the web service and the softer "lifestyle" image of the original magazine. And who better to straddle this awkward branding divide than Playboy UK's new figurehead, the bona fide British aristo Lady Isabella Hervey, who describes herself as "a good clean girl - but I can also look sexy."

Sitting in the Camden offices of Frank PR on a scorching hot day, she shows me a Polaroid from her Playboy pictorial - in it, she lies along a thick white rope, her body sprayed with grease to emphasise her muscular thighs. She is completely naked but, as she has assured me, you can indeed see "nothing apart from the shape of my body." No "T" and no "A" - not in this part of Playboy, at least, as befits a "lifestyle" porn empire attempting to shake its adolescent and dirty-old-men porn image.

Later that night, at the launch party for the re-branded Playboy UK, Lady Isabella makes a brief appearance for the benefit of the paparazzi, but, it must be said, with her ostentatiously toned gym body she doesn't quite (ahem) "fill" a Playboy outfit the way it should be. She also looks deeply uncomfortable.

Inside the party, hordes of men in suits crowd round the very few agency girls who have been hired to dress as Playmates for the night, and when I gain admittance to the chief executive's private bar, the inner sanctum of the party, to find him drinking alone, it is clear that a Playboy party in London 2005 is no real relation of anything that might have happened at the legendary mansion in LA.

"I am no Hugh Hefner," says Yates, who at 36 became the chief executive of Playboy UK after he was "acquired" by the corporation when it "acquired" his previous employer, the Adult Channel, where he was managing director. He refers to the magazine as "part of the main offering but not the main part" - the main part is playboy.co.uk. "Playboy" is now one of the most searched terms on the internet - and you can be sure it is not the articles people are searching for.

"It's important to be everywhere all the time," says Yates as he sings the praises of the Sony PS Portable ("it can tackle extremely good quality video, all from the net and display it on something like an aeroplane TV screen"). And, with the new generation, he says, phones are ideal for their core markets of business travellers and 18- to 24-year-olds.

But, I repeat, do people really want to watch porn on their mobile phone? "Not on the Tube, no. But teenagers do. Possibly when they're at home. Just not in the living room," says Yates.

While playing up the men's lifestyle elements in Playboy on-line (for which read boy's toys and gadgets), Yates admits Playboy's central contradiction: that, on the one hand, the hardcore stuff is not branded (so, in addition to the softcore Playboy TV, the stronger broadcast content appears on the Adult Channel, Spice Extreme and Climax 3), but, on the other hand, the hardcore stuff is what Playboy feels compelled to provide, to compete with the internet and pay per view, and despite keeping it at arm's length to try and protect the lucrative teen clothing and stationery image, the hardcore streaming is, to use Yates's indelicate phrase, "the meat in the sandwich".

I feel sorry for Playboy. This once great magazine and purveyor of cool has been reduced to an internet porn site, some dodgy TV channels and a profitable line in kids' clothes. The myth still limps on - last time a trip to the Playboy Mansion was auctioned it went for "in excess of $25,000," says Yates, "and it didn't even include the flight!"

But the magic is gone. Never mind reading it for the articles, the multi-platform world means Playboy is a provider of porn you can access anywhere - but wasn't that what the magazine was for?