When Playboy was founded in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, nobody expected it to become one of America's most well-known and iconic brands. It started out as a small venture in a Chicago apartment, but quickly grew into a massive empire controlled by Hugh Hefner. Today the playboy bunny is an American icon and a sex symbol. It is also a symbol of wealth, beautiful women, and, to many, the prestigious life of the rich. Playboy Enterprises, however, may be losing its grip on the future. After more than fifty years in existence, a struggling economy and reduced readership have shrunk the brand empire. Only time will tell if Playboy will continue on as the American icon it once was.
When Hugh Hefner was born in 1926 there was no indication that this average American child would grow up to become king of a huge financial empire and creator of one of America's most widely known icons. Before he started Playboy, Hefner worked for Esquire magazine as a copywriter. When the magazine moved to New York, Hefner requested a five dollar raise. His request was denied so he chose to stay in Chicago and start his own magazine, rather than follow the company. His first attempts to start a Chicago-based magazine failed, but Hefner didn't stop. He became convinced that there was a market for a men's magazine and he was determined to fill that market. After raising $8,000 in capital, Hefner printed the first issue of Playboy in December of 1953. He didn't put a date on this issue because he didn't know if or when he would be able to print a second issue. As it turns out, there was no need to worry; fifty thousand copies of the first issue were sold. Hefner took the money and rolled it back into the magazine, paying off printing and paper costs and producing the next issue. Playboy was a hit.
By the end of the 1950's, Hefner was selling over one million copies of the Playboy magazine every month. During the 1960's the popularity of Playboy continued to grow. The magazine was such a big hit because it appealed not only to men's erotic senses, but to their intellect as well. Hefner produced intelligent, though-provoking articles, including The Playboy Philosophy, which he printed in the magazine. Hefner hit the nail on the head with his blend of intellect and women, and Playboy rose to become the most influential men's magazine in the world.
In 1971 Hugh Hefner took Playboy Enterprises and made it a publicly listed company. By this time he had already expanded the Playboy empire well beyond the scope of the magazine, and had numerous Playboy Clubs, hotels, casinos, and resorts. Hefner didn't stop there either. He created both a modeling agency and a limousine service, and moved the Playboy influence into the media in the form of a book publisher, a record label, and a TV and motion picture company. Membership for his clubs, hotels, casinos, and resorts swelled to more than 900,000 in number. Within twenty years Playboy had become a major American influence.
The famous icon for the infamous brand, the Playboy bunny, started out as a sophisticated male rabbit, complete with a bowtie. This rabbit was meant to be a representation of the reader; the initial magazine concept was designed for the sophisticated male, the one with an appreciation for literature, fine wines, and the arts. In the early 1960's, when the first Playboy Club was opened, the male rabbit turned into a female bunny. The waitresses at the Playboy Clubs, in keeping with the bunny concept, were dressed as bunnies. Thus, the Playboy bunny was born. This symbol rapidly became an American sex symbol. As a boy Hugh Hefner was influenced, like many young Americans, by the glamorous world of Hollywood. In 1971 Hugh Hefner bought a second home in Los Angeles, which was quickly dubbed Playboy mansion west. This home enabled Hugh to better oversee and control the many film and television projects Playboy Enterprises was involved in. In 1975 Hugh moved to Los Angeles, making Playboy mansion west his permanent residence.
By the 1980's Playboy had fallen off its pedestal. What had started out as a major cultural influence lost its edge, becoming stagnant and diluted. Magazine circulation dropped fifty percent. Playboy Clubs began closing and some of the casinos even had their licenses revoked. Physically the eighties were hard on Hugh Hefner as well. In 1985 he suffered a stroke, which he calls "a stroke of luck" because it changed the direction of his life. In 1989 Hefner married for the second time.
The eighties took a toll on the Playboy empire, but they by no means stopped it. Throughout the nineties Playboy continued on, though not as the influence it once was. Today the company continues to limp forward, but magazine readership and advertising revenue have both declined, cutting drastically into Playboy's profit margin. Playboy's current CEO is Scott Flanders, and in June of 2010, Playboy was forced to reduce its staff, hoping to save three million dollars annually. Not one to give up easily, Playboy Enterprises has also been entering into licensing deals for the bunny ears logo. Print advertising is down, but with such an iconic logo, the company is hoping to remake some of its profits through these licensing deals. Hugh Hefner is also coming up with ways to save the company. Though it has been a public company for more than thirty years, he is now offering to make it private by buying all of the remaining stock that isn't currently owned by him at $5.50 a share, cash. If Hefner buys the remaining stock, the task of making Playboy once again a major cultural influence will fall on his shoulders.
The story of Playboy is a story of one man's vision and determination to turn his ideas into concrete realities. Clearly, he succeeded, but after losing its place on top, the situation begs the question, can Playboy regain its status as a cultural influence? Hefner has proven himself once and he may very well prove himself again. Either way, he will always be king of one of the most iconic empires in America.