Playboy’s peak year of circulation was 1972. In fact, the best-selling issues was November 1972, selling over 7,000,000 copies. The New Yorker reported than roughly 25% of college men were purchasing the magazine monthly. The 70’s started out so well for Playboy that Heffner decided to become the first gentlemen’s magazine to be printed in Braille. There’s been a great deal written about the magazine, the empire that it started, and whether and how that empire is in decline today. Founded in 1953, like all magazine Heffner needed to collect advertising revenue to stay afloat. Unlike other magazine of the time, however, Heffner needed to prove two things to would-be advertisers: (1) a critical mass of men is purchasing the magazine, and (2) they were looking at more than just the pictures in the magazine. As you might imagine, Playboy struggled with the latter more than the former.
To combat this issue, Playboy ran a series of advertisements in the 60’s that I came across in my research on bachelor pads. You might be familiar with them. These are the “What sort of man reads Playboy?” ads. Formally, these advertisements were ads for advertisers (a dizzying thought). But they also played a role in normalizing the use of pornography by framing its use as commonplace, public, and undertaken by white, wealthy, successful men. Looking back on these ads now, it seems likely that the ads said more about how Heffner and Playboy saw themselves than it did about the readership.
While advertising, distribution, and consumption research has been done on who is actually reading the magazine and how the magazine affects men (see here, here, and here) and reflects, constructs, and sometimes disrupts(?) gender and sexual relations (see here, here, and here), I wasn’t able to find any analysis of this series of advertisements. [I’m thinking of something cool like Goffman’s analysis of gender in advertisements–(see here too).]
I’m reminded of Feona Attwood’s research on pornographic websites. She argues that pornographic websites play an active role in constructing communities through shared tastes (here). I feel there’s a lot to say here. Part of Heffner’s success was that he created a community (even if only symbolic) in which men could fantasize about themselves in positions of wealth and power while they thumbed through pictures of naked women. “What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?” ads played a role in creating that culture in the magazine–even if the intended audience for the ads was would-be advertisers.
This is just a preliminary analysis based on the sample of “What Sort…” ads I was able to find (17). After my first go-through, I found that men were depicted in five scenarios: (1) with their wives/significant others, (2) at work, (3) shopping, (4) socializing, or (5) vacationing & at play. (See below for the ads I was able to locate.)
There are a few features of the ads that are patterned. The one that you can’t miss is the presence of a woman in the background of the image who’s looking directly at the man, though he remains unaware of her gaze and seeming interest. Whether at work, with a significant other, shopping, socializing, or on vacation, the presence of sexually interested women is overwhelming in these ads. The men in all of the ads are white, and in almost all of the ads the men appear significantly older than the women. Crow’s feet, a furrowed brow, and signs of age are common among the men in the ads. The young men depicted appear to be the young guns at work or as though they come from a wealthy family.
The young women in the ads (and they are all young) appear easily won over and superficially (and sexually) swayed by signs of wealth. They are also everywhere. The ads present a world in which all women are sexual objects, always sexually interested in men (well, Playboy-reading men anyway). In almost all of the ads, men are consuming–or they’re at work, in seemingly high-powered and high-paying jobs affording them the ability to consume in their free time. Most of the men appear single (though not all), and weddings ring fingers are often conspicuously out of the shot. If these men are the primary readers of Playboy, Heffner wanted to show advertisers, they aren’t ashamed of it–they wear it as a badge of honor.
Like the futuristic portrayals of bachelor pads in Playboy, these advertisements seem to portray more of the image Playboy has always had of itself more than the actual demographics of the readers. Yet, advertising revenue today in Playboy is best predicted by the woman on the cover. It appears that advertisers never bought the hype.
What themes do you see in these ads?