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Playboy keeps its clothes on: This bunny goes SFW

Dani Mathers, the 2015 Playmate of the Year, poses during a luncheon on the garden grounds of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, May 14, 2015.
Kevork Djansezian | Reuters
Dani Mathers, the 2015 Playmate of the Year, poses during a luncheon on the garden grounds of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, May 14, 2015.
"The customer speaks, the user rules: In today's media landscape, nudity is just an unnecessary attribute." -Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders

Playboy is getting skin in the media game by ditching naked ladies for content that readers may feel comfortable showing their mothers.

The company on Thursday officially launched its completely safe-for-work mobile app Playboy NOW. The app marks a strategic shift to make more content that mainstream America can feel comfortable sharing with their peers, heralded by the 375 percent increase in global unique monthly visitors that Playboy.com has experienced ever since it first adopted this approach in August.

"The customer speaks, the user rules: In today's media landscape, nudity is just an unnecessary attribute," Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders said.

Back in 2011, Playboy Enterprises was floundering. The media enterprise went private in January of that year through an agreement with Icon Acquisition Holdings that included a limited partnership still belonging to founder Hugh Hefner for about $207 million. It had first gone public in 1971, 18 years after the first issue featuring Marilyn Monroe was published.

But Flanders explained that the company began seeing dramatic growth in users on its social media pages. When analyzing what drove 28 million users across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube to follow the brand, Playboy realized they were mostly sharing and commenting on its non-nude content, even though 75 percent of its traffic comes after 4 p.m.

"It grew virally with almost no effort or energy," Flanders said. "All that safe-for-work content from the beginning caused us to think. There's a real appetite for lifestyle content with the Playboy brand authority on many different topics."

"It's a very smart media play," said a media agency buyer, who asked not to be named. "If they can continue to deliver the story in a smart, cheeky, irreverent way—speaking in the audience voice, keeping their editorial tone relevant, but appealing to a lower risk tolerance advertiser pool—the growth potential is there."

It's still unclear if all these changes are improving Playboy's revenue. Flanders declined to release current overall revenue numbers, saying the company is "still in early days, but gaining momentum." However, a 2013 Wall Street Journal article pegged the company at $135 million, over 40 percent less than it was taking in 2009.

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The new strategy follows Playboy taking ownership in August of the editorial on its website from a third party service. The team focused on creating stories that people could feel comfortable perusing in public. At the time, about four million visitors around the world visited its flagship site.

It has had more than 100 million unique visitors—about 19 million per month—and 38 million video views since its more tame relaunch. One-third of website readers visit Playboy.com daily. Leading its site on Thursday was a profile on Brendon Babenzien, the former creative director of shoe brand Supreme and founder of skate/surf brand Noah. There was also a piece suggesting an outfit for Memorial Day, featuring a J. Crew chambray shirt and a crewneck sweater, as well as a news brief encouraging people to download the Audible audiobook of "The Art of War."

Playboy came in third among magazine brands for the largest audience growth year-over-year between the first quarter 2015 and first quarter 2014 (61 percent), according to the Association of Magazine Media (MPA). It also had the most mobile web growth according to the organization, a whopping 756 percent increase during the same time period.

Altimeter Group analyst Rebecca Lieb said she isn't surprised that Playboy has honed in on men's lifestyle and that its more chaste outlook is bringing in readers. She said the move to produce edgy, yet acceptable, content that targets the highly desirable male millennial demographic (19- to 34-year-olds, per Pew Research Center) has been something many companies have adopted ever since Vice Media and Buzzfeed's showed success with the tactic.

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"Men are always going to look at topless ladies, but they don't want to lose their job over it," she said. "You can't maintain the lifestyle if you lose the paycheck."

Even Flanders admitted it was hard to stand out on the Internet with pornography.

"We've always been provocative and progressive: That's really in in our DNA," he explained. "There was a time where nudity was unavailable. Today, anyone with access to the Internet is one click away from the most explicit sex acts imaginable. That's no part of what the Playboy lifestyle was about for us."

From its inception, the company has always been a hub for nude pictures, but also investigative journalism and creative writing. The joke that men bought Playboys for the articles was partially true, she pointed out, thanks to renowned contributing writers like Joseph Heller, Roald Dahl, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Tom Wolfe Gay Talese and Kurt Vonnegut.

"They always had these ads that explained what sort of man reads Playboy," she recalled. "It was an urbane bachelor, with a well-stocked bar, a high-end stereo, and a well-decorated apartment. Even when Playboy did brand expansions back in the day, it was to express the Hugh Hefner type of lifestyle."

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And, because the content is less risqué, it has brought in new advertisers since the site's relaunch, including Nintendo, NBC/Universal (parent of CNBC), Fox, Warner Brothers, Dewar's, Stoli, DeLeon Tequila, Johnnie Walker, Mini-Cooper and Revlon/American Crew. Playboy Enterprises chief revenue officer Matt Mastrangelo previously told Adweek that Playboy.com was experiencing a four times increase in advertising proposals and request for proposals YOY, and about 65 to 75 of marketers featured on its site were doing it for the first time.

The company is hoping that if the Playboy NOW app focuses on content like its site, it will be able to bring in those ad dollars. While it hasn't actively sought out brand partners yet for its app product, some of the new partners are already being featured in pre-roll video ads.

Users can expect content like "The Daily" section, which will provide five things users need to know for the day like what the movie "8 Minutes" got wrong about portraying sex workers to strange beers. Other articles will range from the best restaurants to celebrity interviews. While there are pictures and videos of Playmates, they'll be covered up. With 80 percent of its users consuming its content through their mobile devices, Flanders believes this is a winning strategy.

The safe-for-work strategy may spread to more aspects of the business, including the still voyeuristic magazine. Flanders admitted that while its online presence through its website and social media accounts reaches about 47 million readers per month, its magazine circulation is just 750,000. Nude content still exists, but mostly behind a paywall on PlayboyPlus.com.

He declined to say whether the print version would be covering up.

"Stay tuned," Flanders said.