As the rise of free internet porn meets the movement of advertising money from print to online, Playboy’s prospects look pretty grim. What does it offer, goes the conventional wisdom, that I can’t get online? Well, if you can’t beat online, you just have to become it: The first cover model of Playboy’s new, non-nude era is an Instagram model posing for a simulated Snapchat selfie.
It seems crazy and maybe a little desperate that Playboy’s answer to “What can we offer that they can’t get online?” is “photos of Instagram models.” But, to paraphrase a famously bad tactician, you go to war with the market conditions you have, not the market conditions you want.
And the market conditions for Playboy are these: First, the prevalence of nude images and pornography of every stripe, on demand, for free, renders the ability to show a nipple — even a famous nipple — basically irrelevant. And second, building your brand on nudes is actually a liability when you want to reach an audience on Facebook and Instagram, platforms where the nipple is infamously not free.
So the new, shareable, millennial-friendly Playboy leads with Instagram starlet Sarah Rose McDaniel — you may know her as @krotchy — posing with her arm out, as if taking a selfie. Although she’s clothed, the image is in some ways more risqué than the uncensored Playboy of the past. It’s more intimate, which is by design — "the idea was to look at me from a boyfriend’s perspective,” McDaniel said — and every photo in the issue is unretouched. The overall message seems to be: The Playboy of the past was fake, like internet pornography is fake. This Playboy is real. Or at least as real as the meticulously curated lives your favorite models share on Instagram.
But this is a bit of a trick: The camera McDaniel is looking into isn’t the one she’s ostensibly holding. It’s operated by Theo Wenner. Two things Playboy can provide that Instagram can’t: high-level professional photographers and styling.
Even that is changing, though: Instagram celebrities with huge followings are increasingly able to land product endorsements and book shoots with top talent. Why would they want to pose for Playboy? There’s the audience, and the reach, yes, but as the Awl’s John Herrman pointed out recently, celebrities have little incentive to grant access to magazines who have fewer Twitter followers than they do.
Which leaves us with the one part of Playboy everyone jokes about: the articles. Thus far, journalists’ attempts to parse the phenomenon of popular women on Instagram have been a disaster. (See, e.g., the New York Post’s profile of 20-year-old insta-celeb Eileen Kelly, titled “I fuel fantasies of men who want sex with young girls, and I’m fine with it.” It’s a scorching-hot trashfire that made no attempt to understand Kelly or her audience.)
There’s a whole demographic with a lot to say and no mainstream publication to listen or take them seriously. If Playboy plays this right, it could be that publication. If they play it wrong, though, they’re just Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock. How do you do, fellow kids?
Best of luck to our legacy pornographic media!