Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'PLAYBOY' Ditching Nudes? Why This Move Will Rival The "New Coke" Fiasco Of 1985

Playboy front cover August 1968
The recent news that PLAYBOY magazine's  marketing cognoscenti have opted to go full all out with "no nudes" - effectively turning the magazine into another GQ,  Esquire or Maxim, has the blogosphere and media going nuts. (Leaving out all the hackneyed jokes that "You can now really read the magazine for the articles!")

 Is Hugh Hefner part of this ill-informed decision? Did he agree to bastardize his own "child"?  What drove this wacky decision and how will it play out? Well, the last answer is easy: Not very well!

One need only look at the "New Coke" fiasco from 30 -odd years ago when Coke - bummed by lethargic sales - decided to go to a new formula for its flagship drink.  In an article on it, Wikipedia notes:

"New Coke was the unofficial popular name for the reformulation of Coca-Cola introduced in the spring of 1985 by The Coca-Cola Company to replace the original formula of its flagship soft drink, Coca-Cola (also called Coke). New Coke originally had no separate name of its own, but was simply known as "the new taste of Coca-Cola" until 1992 when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.
Coca-Cola's market share had been steadily losing ground to Pepsi and the company suspected that consumers preferred the latter's sweeter taste, which they confirmed via numerous blind taste tests. However, the American public's reaction to the change was negative, even hostile, and the new cola was a major marketing failure. The subsequent reintroduction less than three months later of Coke's original formula, re-branded as "Coca-Cola Classic", resulted in a significant gain in sales" 

In other words, the company was forced to eat humble pie three months later, because its sales were plummeting. The same will happen to PLAYBOY. The lesson, which they ought to have learned, is you do not mess with or change an expected formula. It doesn't matter if their sales -subscriptions have gone down to 800,000 from a million 2 years ago.

Those remaining readers (average age 47)  will expect PLAYBOY to retain its content identity -including the nude centerfold and nude features (e.g. "Girls of the Big 12") or they will "vote with their checkbooks",  canceling their subscriptions.

Already informal online polls of male readers by the Atlanta Journal & Constitution show that nearly 8 in 10 would rather cancel their PLAYBOY subscriptions than continue for a magazine that opts to dilute its content in order to appease online "platforms" which have less tolerance for the nudity. Most of those online connections, including the PLAYBOY web site, attract Millennials of average age 30 who are not so into nude females. They want them partially dressed as in MAXIM.

The problem is that the older demographic that reads the print PLAYBOY, isn't like that. They are fully invested in the expectation that the mag doesn't suddenly "change stripes" and expect them to pay for the change. The authors of the Wiki article again:

"New Coke was only on the market in the United States for a short period, but it remains influential as a cautionary tale against tampering too extensively with a well-established and successful brand"

 The argument by some in the PLAYBOY empire that "there is already a glut of porn online so PLAYBOY doesn't need to duplicate it" , also doesn't hold up to scrutiny. For one thing, nude centerfolds identified PLAYBOY long before there was an internet. In addition, the aspect that has distinguished all PLAYBOY nudes is their quality and class.  By contrast, most online porn is precisely lacking in class, the very opposite of what PLAYBOY embodies. So the dictum that "it's already there" is basically telling existing PLAYBOY subscribers not to embrace PLAYBOY's soft porn imagery any more ...but "go for the gutter."

The problem PLAYBOY faces can be boiled down to this: Do away with the nudes and centerfolds to make the magazine comport with the more prudish content demands of assorted online social media  platforms, likely losing 500,000 print subscribers in the process -  OR keep the magazine content as it has historically been and accept smaller readership going forward but not a catastrophic collapse.

The choice may not be exactly in the league of a "Hobson's choice" but it will be difficult if the magazine's movers and shakers are too greedy for more profits  (and new readers) - as opposed to leaving well enough alone. To put it bluntly, it makes little sense to grab 400,000 new readers only to lose 500,000 of the old ones who will feel betrayed in a "bait and switch".

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