Playboy has finally found a new way to shock and titillate America.
The magazine has announced that it will no longer feature full nudity. Instead, it will be moving toward a partially clad, cheesecake pin-up style.
When I heard the news, I immediately wondered what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter would have made of it. Schumpeter, who famously sought to become the world’s greatest economist, lover, and horseman — and admitted to failure only when it came to horses — would surely have followed the news from Playboy with interest.
But Schumpeter’s interest would have been as professional as it was prurient. As Michael Miller reports in theWashington Post,
By routinizing provocative images of naked women, Playboyinevitably created a market for its own rivals. In the 1970s, the magazine went head to head with newcomerPenthouse, whose more graphic female nudity pushed Playboy to become more extreme as well…. Playboy eventually toned down its photos in an attempt to re-establish its “girl next door” reputation, but the company would face even stiffer competition with the rise of the Internet. Suddenly, graphic porn wasn’t just available online. It was free. Playboy’s circulation, which had peaked at 5.6 million in 1975, plummeted to its present tally of 800,000.
The disappearance of full nudity from Playboy magazine is, in other words, a perfect example of Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. Schumpeter wrote that the “essential fact about capitalism” is creative destruction — the process “that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structurefrom within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
Just as buggy-whip makers were driven out of business by the rise of the automobile and manufacturers of wall phones were driven out by the rise of the cell phone, traditional purveyors of pornography can be driven out by new technology. In fact, pornography may be a business that is particularly sensitive to technological progress. Though it’s a disputed claim, many technology magazines have claimed that the superior availability of naughty movies on VHS lead to the demise of BetaMax. The legal scholar Peter Johnson argued in 1996 that
Throughout the history of new media, from vernacular speech to movable type, to photography, to paperback books, to videotape, to cable and pay-TV, to “900” phone lines, to the French Minitel, to the Internet, to CD-ROMs and laser discs, pornography has shown technology the way.
The two decades since Johnson’s article have only proven him more correct. With an ever increasing amount of free nudity available online in ways that allow users to precisely calibrate the images they find in order to satisfy their individual desires, the images in Playboy began to seem increasingly quaint and out of date. The desire for pictures of fresh-faced girls next door — filled by Playboy in ersatz and airbrushed fashion — is, presumably, easily filled by the actual girls next door on Snapchat and Tinder. Playboy needed to get creative and change, or be destroyed by its competitors’ creativity.
But while pornography’s critics have long argued that the proliferation of electronic porn is producing a race to be the most hardcore and the most shocking, Playboy has chosen to innovate by going in the opposite direction. This strikes me as a brilliant marketing move.
While the move may well have been done with an eye to skirting China’s laws about pornography, with today’s hipster fascination on reviving the old ways of doing just about everything — from canning food, to home sewing, to vintage dances, fashions, hairstyles, and so on — Playboy’s nod to its status as the 1950s source for cheeky photos is a smart one. Rather than smelling faintly of mothballs, the magazine may manage to rebrand itself into something as desirable as a pair of vintage horn-rims or a fixed-wheel bicycle.
People who worry about innovation and excessive technology and the loss of the good old days should take heart, in other words. The relentless drive of the market, the need to satisfy new customers with different preferences and constraints, the constant push for new technology, and the desire for competitors to stand out in the marketplace, has produced — as its latest innovation — good old-fashioned cheesecake.