Playboy says it looks better not naked

Playboy's first non-nude issue has been on for sale the past month, and the media empire claims its re-robed strategy is working with advertisers.

The 63-year-old magazine's March issue featured 42 advertising pages, which is a 55.5 percent increase from the same issue last year. In addition, 1,200 more newsstands carried the issue, and Playboy claims it's selling well. About 75 percent of the stock has sold out at Barnes & Noble.

"What we were experiencing (before the switch) is we would get in a lot of proposals from consumer-facing brands for huge digital ad buys, then there would be hesitancy before we could actually close the insertion order," said Playboy CEO Scott Flanders. "Now we're getting requests for proposals asking us for ideas."

In fact, the company claims that ever since it announced their new direction in October, it has held more than 300 meetings with new and existing advertisers. Print advertisers in the March issue include brands such as Stolichnaya Premium Vodka, which has been an advertiser since the 1980s, and Dodge, which was the magazine's first Detroit-based auto advertiser in 25 years. Dodge also was a sponsor Playboy's Super Bowl party in San Francisco this year.

Meanwhile, Flanders said the safe-for-work strategy, which it has been employing on since August, 2014, has led to a 400 percent growth in its online audience. It now gets 16 million unique global visitors per month, and 31 million users across its social media platforms. More importantly, the median age of visitors dropped from 47 to a much more advertiser desirable 30.5 during the same period.

As a result of its larger footprint, Flanders said Playboy's digital ad revenue is up 75 percent compared to the first quarter of 2015. Todd Alchin, partner and chief creative strategist at media buying and planning agency Noble People, agreed that Playboy's strong name recognition still gives it a leg up, and jokes aside, the magazine has always had a commitment to journalistic articles.

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But Alchin pointed out that it faces challenges because of the decline of the publishing business overall. The non-nude announcement may have driven up publicity, causing a flood of new advertisers. However, that attention may not last.

In addition, Alchin said that while it is true that companies are more comfortable with safe-for-work brands, the idea of them shying away from adult titles is starting to fade. Just recently, clothing brand Diesel ran a huge ad campaign on the porn website, Pornhub.

"I don't doubt the (Playboy) numbers," said Alchin. "I just doubt the longevity of it. I don't want to suggest they can't build a solid product without nudity. I just think it's too early to make that call."

Still, Playboy's Flanders insists that becoming safe for work has also helped with licensing, which has always been a non-nude part of the business. Its largest licensee skin and body care company Coty — which does almost $200 million in wholesale Playboy-licensed item business annually — is considering a return to the U.S. market. It is also launching its second seasonal collaboration with clothing brand Joyrich.

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It's hard to deny the print magazine's declining circulation rates. Per the company, in March of last year it had 750,000 subscribers. This past March, it was just 500,000. In the mid-1970s, Playboy had circulation of about six million.

Playboy did add that it reset its ad rate base numbers — the figure used to compute the price per ad — in 2016 in order to eliminate subscribers that are getting free issues or not paying the full rate, which is often included in other magazine's circulation numbers. If those people are included, the numbers would be around 600,000. The publication are hopeful that the figures will increase again with the more safe-for-work issues.

"The massive press attention to move to non-nude (in the print edition) has garnered almost 7 billion media impressions," said Flanders. "It remains our 5th Avenue storefront, and there is a credibility. Our contributors feel they want to be in print. We continue to draw luminaries for that, I'm not sure we would receive the same attention for important influencers without the print product."

The declining numbers are an issue that most men's print magazines are facing. FHM and Details folded last year. Maxim also cut its ad rate base to 900,000 from 2 million in October.

Flanders dismissed the worrisome category, saying that because of Playboy's strong brand name and large digital audience, it considers its place in the media landscape to be more in line with Buzzfeed and Vice.