Skip to main content

How the internet killed Playboy

How the internet killed Playboy

Share this story

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This week, Playboy magazine announced a major change: starting with the March 2016 issue, the magazine built by boobs will no longer be featuring nudity. A number of questions still remain about what this move means for the magazine and what the brand will be like once it axes its most defining feature. But one thing seems incredibly clear: Playboy's rebrand is a result of the internet — and the forces that took the Bunnies out of Playboy are the same ones that have been making it harder for pornographers to make a living for some time now.

Playboy itself admits that the rise of online porn is one of the reasons for the change. Now that nudity — and much, much more — is just a Google search away, there's less appeal offered by Playboy's relatively tame pictorials. But that's only half the story: equally damaging to Playboy's fortunes has been a creeping gentrification of the internet that's made it hard for pornographers to do business — at least the ones that want to operate through legitimate channels.

It is strange to think of the internet — a place where everyone and their mother seems to have a secret porn Tumblr — as unfriendly to adult content. But the crux here is that, when it comes to the naked internet, there are two radically different spheres that operate by wildly different rules. In one, there's the flourishing world of freely distributed and user-uploaded content: places like XXX Tumblr, PornHub, and Reddit, where laws are ignored and piracy reigns supreme. In the other, there's the law-abiding, legitimate porn industry — now a shadow of its former self, and a place where it's become increasingly difficult to make a buck.

It's become increasingly difficult to make a buck in the legitimate porn industry

Despite what the legends may tell you, online porn hasn't been an easy way to get rich for some years. Even before the onslaught of piracy driven tube sites, corporate and government interests were cracking down on porn. In 2002, Visa and MasterCard enacted new rules for adult sites looking to do business online. If you want to process credit card payments for your smut, you have to comply with a whole bunch of rules and pay a number of fees; as a result, most mainstream payment processors (including Stripe and PayPal) won't work with anyone selling pornographic content. And that was just the beginning: shortly after, the Department of Justice announced updates to 18 US Code § 2257, an onerous set of records keeping regulations that meant the end of XXX companies that couldn't afford the cost of maintaining records, and a ton of new headaches for the ones that stuck around. As soon as the web began to get more mainstream, a number of forces kicked in to make things a lot harder for pornographers.

As content has shifted from the open web to the walled gardens of apps, things have only gotten more difficult. Apple has been clear that nudity isn't welcome in any of its sanctioned apps; in 2010, Playboy made headlines for launching in the app store — with a censored, nudity-free version of the magazine. While many adult companies — including Playboy — have skirted these regulations with tablet enabled websites or "web apps," they're just not the same as appearing in the official app store (which, in addition to a sheen of legitimacy, also offers more visibility and marketing opportunities).

Playboy's biggest challenge isn't that more hardcore content is now readily available — there always has been, and always will be, an audience for the more softcore stuff that's long defined the brand — it's that the purveyors of free porn who've served up the biggest threat aren't playing by the same rules. As law-abiding pornographers have been hampered by aggressive laws and nudity-unfriendly corporate environments, porn pirates — who don't concern themselves with records-keeping regulations or payment processor TOS — have run amok, devaluing a product that's become ever more expensive to produce, and making it that much harder to earn a living as an honest pornographer. Even when Playboy's been able to create some impressive content — like their Lindsay Lohan photo spread in 2012 — the photos have ended up on free online sites almost immediately, reducing any incentive to actually pay for the magazine to see them. It's hard to compete with someone giving away their (or your) wares for free, especially when they're not hampered by the same production expenses and legal restrictions that you are.

And when you consider that this is all happening at a time when print magazines and websites are being supplanted by apps like Apple and Facebook with anti-nudity policies, it's not hard to see why Playboy might abandon its naughty side to take its chances as a more mainstream magazine. Print might be dying, but it's still a lot easier to make it as a safe-for-work publication than it is as a pornographer — especially with the name recognition of Playboy.

Playboy's most impressive content has ended up on free online sites almost immediately

Playboy debuted in an era when creating hardcore pornography was a criminal act; Hugh Hefner sparked a revolution by offering a product that made sex and nudity feel classy and high minded, an acceptable activity for the nice girl next door. Decades later, society has cracked down on the legitimate, law abiding pornographers; allowing smut to — once more — become the domain of those less than interested in following the law. It is strange that a society that's become much more comfortable with sex and porn has still seen fit to relegate its production and distribution to the seamy side of society: but given how things are, it's not so shocking to see Playboy make an attempt to go fully mainstream. When made the switch to safe for work, its traffic quadrupled: these days, sex may be the one thing that doesn't sell.

Verge Video: What's the future of sex?