Playboy to stop publishing nude photos of women.

How the Internet Killed Playboy

How the Internet Killed Playboy

Notes on the culture of the Internet.
Oct. 13 2015 2:56 PM

How the Internet Killed Playboy

The nudie magazine is going PG-13 to save itself in the digital age.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Starting next March, Playboy will stop publishing photographs of naked women. The cheesecake will be dialed back to a “PG-13” rating, the New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya reported Monday night. Playmate photos will look “more like the racier sections of Instagram” than the adult section of the bookstore. In place of nude women, the magazine will highlight its “tradition of investigative journalism, in-depth interviews and fiction.” It will target “young men who live in cities.” According to Playboy CEO Scott Flanders, the Internet is to blame. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Flanders told the Times. “And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

The precise mechanism by which the Internet killed Playboy is a little more complicated than that. It’s true that Internet porn delivers more bang for the buck than Playboy ever did—particularly because Internet porn is free. But the digital dominance has also made smut markedly less cool, especially for members of Playboy’s target audience.


When Playboy debuted in 1953, it was revolutionary to page through a nudie mag. Reading Playboy was practically a political protest against government censorship. Two decades later, catching an erotic flick in a movie theater was a bawdy date for naughty couples. But now, the sexual counterculture is trading erotic GIFs on Tumblr, and the scene is glittering with contributions from gay, pansexual, feminist, and BDSM viewers. Today’s straight guys are unlikely to buy a magazine just to see a naked girl. And today’s literally-everybody-else is unlikely to be thrilled by a brand that sells such an activity as the height of cool—partly because Playboy’s hetero framework is terribly old school, too.

Porn’s digital dominance also made porn consumption more private. It’s now normalized to scroll through porn videos on your phone in bed, but gross and weird to pay to watch it in a public theater. Ditto picking up Playboy on the newsstand (or rocking bunny-eared insignia—as print sales dwindle, retail is central to Playboy’s 21st-century business model). The retro chic image of the Playboy playboy rocking a smoking jacket in a conversation pit has been replaced with that of a geriatric Hugh Hefner bumbling around his mansion while reality show producers pipe in derpy sound effects.

Meanwhile, social media sites, which now determine which magazine content lives and dies, are less amenable to nudity than sidewalk newsstands are (or were). Though Tumblr and Twitter allow nakedness on their networks, Facebook and Instagram—the latter is owned by the former—ban most exposed nipples, with photos of breastfeeding mothers as the exception. In that media landscape, a sex column written by a “sex-positive female” (one feature Playboy editors have teased for the reboot) is a clickier prospect than a nude photograph of said female. Online, Playboy has been PG-13 for more than a year. The magazine found that when it made its website totally “safe for work,” and safe for social media sharing, by dropping nudity, the average reader’s age also dropped—from a late-40s guy to an early-30s dude.

By clothing the models in print, Playboy can help the magazine reach another demographic. In recent years, Playboy has been smart enough to market itself to international audiences that can still be scandalized by a photograph of a naked woman. The Times notes that the Playboy brand is wildly popular in China, a country in which the magazine itself is not actually available. Pornography is illegal in China; the government routinely shutters websites and social media profiles found to disseminate pornographic images. So in place of actual porn, Chinese consumers stock up on bunny-emblazoned T-shirts and trinkets. Over the past decade, Playboy has sold $5 billion worth of the stuff in that country alone. When Playboy tells the Times that the target audience for its buttoned-up reboot is “young men who live in cities,” it might just mean Beijing—perhaps a nudity-free version of Playboy would pass through China’s censors, as the nudity-free lad mag Maxim did in 2004. The retooled Playboy will also likely follow Maxim’s path and shore up on military bases where nudie mags are often off-limits (Playboy isn’t sold at military base exchanges in the Middle East, and mail shipments of the mag are confiscated) and personal Internet time is scarce. In the 1950s, Playboy positioned itself as an enemy of censorship. Now, self-censorship may be the only thing keeping it afloat.