Playboy: How Hugh Hefner Built His Empire
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Playboy: How Hugh Hefner Built His Empire

Few people today remember just how big of
a gamechanger Playboy was during the 1960s. That’s why, in honor of Hugh Hefner’s
passing, we’ll be exploring the spectacular rise of Playboy. This video is brought to you by Squarespace. Build beautiful websites easily and affordably
by signing up with the link below. Hugh Hefner was born in Prohibition-era Chicago
to a Protestant family. His parents were extremely conservative, to
the point where they not only prevented him from drinking, smoking and swearing, but also
did not allow him to go to the movies on Sundays. The subject of sex was complete anathema to
them, and unsurprisingly Hefner grew up to be very introverted young man. To escape from his conservative reality, he
would often turn to drawing comics and creative writing. After graduating college with a psychology
major, he landed an advertising job at Esquire magazine. While working there he got very involved with
the content, and this let him understand what made Esquire successful. We’ve already talked about the rise of the
educated American in our Degree Factory video, but in short: as more and more young Americans
graduated from college and got well paying jobs, the demand for a higher-quality lifestyle
became apparent. Esquire tapped into this new demand exceptionally
well, by painting a picture of what the modern educated American should look like. According to them he should be sophisticated,
yet worldly, with an interest in fancy sports cars, good food, expensive clothing and, of
course, good looking women. Hefner realized how successful this formula
was, and so he was eager to try applying it on his own. When his boss at Esquire refused to give him
a five-dollar raise in 1952, Hefner quit and set about creating his own magazine. Right off the bat he wanted to take Esquire’s
concept to the next level, and what better way to do that than by adding naked women
into the mix. Now, that in and of itself wasn’t particularly
revolutionary: there’d been plenty of “dirty” magazines in the States by that point. All of them, however, very shoddy items. They were printed on the lowest quality paper
possible and were generally not something you’d be proud to show to your neighbors. What made Hugh Hefner’s idea unique was
to combine the high-quality content of a lifestyle magazine with the sexual liberty of showing
beautiful naked women. To get his idea rolling he invested almost
all of his life savings, and when they ran out he ended up selling $8000 worth of stock
to investors and getting $1000 from his mother. He also hired his dad to be his accountant,
but despite their involvement, neither of his parents read a single issue of the magazine. Initially, he wanted to call it Stag Party,
but due to a copyright dispute he ended up naming it Playboy. For the first issue he bought the famous nude
calendar pictures of Marilyn Monroe for $200 and added quite a lot of spicy cartoons and
jokes. He published the first issue of Playboy in
December of 1953, but he was so uncertain of its future that he didn’t even put a
publishing date on it. He was afraid nobody would buy it, but in
fact, Playboy’s very first issue sold 55,000 copies at 50 cents a piece. The gem of Hefner’s magazine from the very
beginning was the “Sweetheart of the Month”, the concept which eventually evolved into
the Playmate we know today. Marilyn Monroe was a very fitting choice for
Playboy’s first issue, but that’s not the only reason for its success. The content itself was very interesting and
featured articles and stories from some of the best writers and critics of the time. Stephen King, for example, would often submit
his short stories at Playboy, as did Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. All these authors made Playboy a very high
quality publication, but of course the real money didn’t come from selling the magazines
themselves, but from the advertisements in them. Thanks to his time in Esquire Hefner knew
how to sign the best possible advertisers for Playboy. He wanted the ads in Playboy to reflect the
ideal lifestyle of its readers and in a way, the ads helped Hefner establish Playboy’s
reputation. Of course, they also carried quite a hefty
paycheck and by the time Hefner had published Playboy’s fourth issue, he had made enough
money to rent a proper office in downtown Chicago. It’s worth noting that the pictures published
in the magazine’s first 15 years are quite tame by today’s standards. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1972 that
Playboy would dabble in full frontal nudity. Hefner divorced his first wife in 1959, and
this left him in a rather weird position. The line between his private and professional
life dissolved almost entirely, to the point where he took on the persona of the sophisticated,
successful bachelor that was idealized by Playboy. He essentially became the face of Playboy,
and he would remain so for the rest of his life. By 1960 the Playboy magazine had become one
of the most successful publications in the States, boasting a circulation of over a million. Using some of the $2.3 million dollars Playboy
earned that year, Hefner opened a Playboy Club in Chicago, where you’d get served
food and drink by the iconic Playboy Bunnies. The club was an instant success and attracted
over a hundred thousand visitors just in the last three months of 1961. Before long, Hefner had opened Playboy clubs
across the country and was also buying up various other real estate, including hotels
and casinos. At the end of the 1960s Playboy boasted a
$127 million dollars in sales, and by that point its content alone was exceptional. The magazine became well known for its upfront
and in-depth interviews with some of the most high-profile public figures of the time. Playboy journalists interviewed Malcolm X,
Miles Davis, the Beatles, and many other famous people. The early 1970s became the golden age of Playboy,
as America experienced the full force of the sexual revolution. Hugh Hefner further cemented his bachelor
persona by purchasing what is now known as the Playboy Mansion for $1.1 million in 1971. Located near Beverly Hills, Hefner would frequently
host lavish parties there in a very Great Gatsby-esque fashion. Just a year later Playboy recorded its highest
ever circulation at 7.2 million readers and it was now a publicly traded company. Despite that, Hugh Hefner’s hectic leadership
was dragging the company down. While revenues had never been higher, actual
profit was down to just $2 million in 1975. Hefner’s real estate investments and brief
partnership with Columbia Pictures to make movies and tv shows were unprofitable and
were eating away at the company’s revenues. This trend continued until the 1980s, when
the company lost a record $69 million over the course of two years. The number of Playboy clubs went down from
22 to just 3, and the likes of Hustler and Penthouse were challenging the Playboy magazine. Finally, in 1982 Hugh Hefner’s daughter,
Christie Hefner, was made president of Playboy and was put in charge of restoring the declining
business. Two years later she had sold off Playboy’s
casinos and was working hard to bring the magazine in line with the times. Just as breaking the sexual taboos of the
1950s gave Playboy its initial kick, now it needed a new direction. For Christie, this meant becoming a champion
of social issues: things like freedom of speech, and supporting
gay rights and AIDS research became the hallmark of Playboy. The magazine still featured nude women, but
it also became a platform for activists and political dissidents. While the move did bring in a more diverse
audience, it also attracted the unwanted attention of the government. In 1986 the Reagan administration labeled
Playboy as pornographic, which immediately caused sales to plummet. Just four years later the magazine was down
to just 3.4 million readers, and its only lifeline was its newly promoted subscription
service. Christie directed her sights outwards and
that paid off. She licensed 14 international editions across
Asia and Europe, which collectively had over a million and a half readers by 1990. Her next move was to meet Hustler and Penthouse
on the media’s latest battlefield: the Internet. Playboy became one of the first national magazines
to have its own Web site, and within its first year it had recorded a peak of half a million
visitors in a single day. By the end of 1997 it was generating 7 million
visits per day and was bringing in significant income from online advertising. But in the years after 2000, competition quickly
brought Playboy down to its knees. Other publications dropped the heavy thought-intensive
articles in favor of shorter content that could be read more quickly. Another trend of newer publications was to
feature celebrities, photographed as close to nude as possible without actually being
nude. In this way they could be shown next to regular
magazines, unlike Playboy, which had to be kept to the side. The company struggled through the early 2000s
and finally posted a loss of $160 million in 2008 after failing to re-enter the TV and
casino businesses. Christie resigned the same year, and since
then the company has been mostly going downhill. Hefner took Playboy private in 2011 with the
help of a company called Rizvi Traverse, upon the condition that they would purchase Hefner’s
33% stake within a year of his death. Hefner then passed the day-to-day operations
of Playboy to his youngest son, Cooper, who at 26 is already living a life as wild as
his father’s. But while he seems eager to restore Playboy’s
popularity, some insiders are questioning whether the company should even continue to
exist in light of Hugh Hefner’s passing. Just one of the many signs of its declining
image is the fact that Hugh Hefner sold the Playboy Mansion for only half the amount he
wanted in early 2016. Now that he’s gone, the future of Playboy
looks increasingly uncertain. The magazine has failed to distinguish itself
from its competitors in an already declining industry thanks to the sheer availability
of online porn. Whether Cooper will be able to save Playboy,
and whether he’ll even be given the chance to do so remains to be seen. Now, looking back at Playboy’s website from
1996 makes me wonder just how much money they spent on it. But here’s the thing: making beautiful websites
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and Reddit, and as always: stay smart.

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