Playboy controversy? I'm all ears

Playboy's attempts to win over Indonesian readers have ended in protests and prison. Here, though, it's business as usual, says Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

Hugh Hefner's bunny brand has spread across the globe with a rampancy to rival the long-eared and highly-sexed little mammal that inspired Art Paul to sketch the famous rabbit in a tux 57 years ago.

The magazine's licensed product business generates $800m (£500m) a year selling branded underwear, fragrances and even energy drinks. There is a flagship store in Las Vegas, with franchises in Auckland, Melbourne, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

But burrowing into the Indonesian market is a different matter. The editor of the Indonesian edition of Playboy, Erwin Arnada, has just begun a two-year jail sentence after attracting protests against his publication from groups such as the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, even though it did not actually contain any nudity. The Indonesian Society against Piracy and Pornography filed a lawsuit in 2006 and the Indonesian Supreme Court last month agreed the come-hither suggestiveness in the eyes of some of the magazine's models, who appeared in negligées and mohair sweaters that exposed cleavage, was sufficient to define the magazine as "soft pornography".

Meanwhile, Pamela Anderson has also drawn the wrath of Indonesian Muslim hardliners after she decided to donate to charity her $25,000 Playboy fee for a nude photoshoot for the January 2011 edition. She handed her cheque to Waves 4 Water, a group that distributes water filters in countries affected by natural disasters, including Indonesia, where new volcanic eruptions occurred last week. Anderson said Waves 4 Water "is an amazing group... It has already made a huge difference in Indonesia, Pakistan and Haiti. I'm so honoured to work with Playboy again to support this life-altering cause."

But the Indonesia-based Islamic Defenders Front said she could keep her filthy lucre, claiming it would be "against the law of God" to accept it. The Front's spokesman, Habib Umar Salim, said: "If she wants to be photographed naked, then she is challenging a bigger disaster to happen in Indonesia. It's haram [forbidden]."

The same Islamic Defenders Front had stoned the Playboy offices in Jakarta and forced it to relocate to Bali. Arnada, who was initially acquitted but lost his case on appeal, was arrested in Bali in September and last month was sent to Jakarta's oldest jail, Cipinang. From his cell he penned an article for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is campaigning for his release. Arnada, 44, told armed officers who took him to jail: "You can put me in a prison, but my ideas, spirit and thoughts will remain free."

Lest we forget, Playboy is the magazine that also published the writing of Saul Bellow and John Updike, employed Alex Haley as an interviewer, and commissioned Helmut Newton as a photographer. Playboy Indonesia ran to just three issues before Arnada was collared. The first featured one of the last interviews with the novelist Pramoedya Anata Toer.

"In Cipinang prison, my cell friends have expressed their support. They know I am only a political victim," Arnada wrote. "'You do not deserve to be in jail, they have made a big mistake, this is an unfunny joke of the Islamic hardliners,' they have said to me. The first two days in Cipinang were the hardest of my life. I have never thought I could be in a prison simply for publishing a magazine."

What Hugh Hefner, 84, can do for Arnada is not clear. Nearer to the top of his list of priorities appears to be opening the new London Playboy Club, which will be the first in the city since 1981 and is intended to symbolise the return to Europe of the Playboy Bunny waitress, with the floppy-ear headband and fluffy tail. The club will open in Mayfair next year, and others will open in Cancun, Macau and Miami. Hef claims his brand is "more popular than ever".

But not everybody agrees. John Gapper, the chief business commentator of the Financial Times, said the bunny is suffering from a marketing equivalent of the rabbit-afflicting myxomatosis: "Playboy is a media brand that is well past its prime."