Totem Rabbit — (Top, left to right) January 1954, February 1956, October 1957; (Bottom, left to right) March 1958, July 1959 and June 1960
Because of its prodigious ability to reproduce, the rabbit is a natural totem
for manhood. Its breeding cycle is fast and its commitment to offspring is minimal. Vigorous females can even release eggs in response to copulation and conceive a second litter whilst pregnant with the first. Cleverly, Playboy
adopted a rabbit as its symbol, which endures in the form of art director Art Paul’s ingenious bow-tied logo. In the beginning, Playboy’s
covers often depicted a rabbit figure looking like a perfect gentleman. More than a logo or mascot, the rabbit served as a symbolic representation of the reader.
It is often forgotten that the rabbit portrayed on Playboy’s early covers was very much male. Typically, he was an unbridled man, out and about, in good company, as evident on the January 1954 cover — the second issue of the magazine. This same issue also marked the first appearance of the rabbit logo.
It was not until the opening of the Playboy Club in 1960 that the rabbit first appeared in the guise of a woman. Hugh Hefner, the alpha rabbit himself, initially resisted the idea of putting women in rabbit costumes to work as waitresses at the Club. He argued that Playboy’s rabbit is in essence manly. Alas, the female “bunny” prevailed and soon infiltrated the entire fortress. It was the beginning of the company’s promiscuous expansion and licensing. And the point when Playboy lost sight of its reader — and desecrated its totem.
Playboy Enterprises, Inc. became a publicly listed company in 1971. Around this time it launched the first international edition of the magazine and began licensing products (such as air fresheners). This metamorphosis persisted throughout the 1980s, as the company embraced television. Eventually the brand became tired and diluted, and by 1986 Playboy was forced into retreat. Magazine circulation was cut in half, casino licenses were revoked and clubs were shut. By this point, Art Paul, the committed exponent of totemic design, had already ended his prolific tenure as art director. No longer a force of cultural transgression, Playboy was out of touch — and had lost its edge.
Hefner’s publication was originally intended for a Don Juan with a taste for jazz, film, literature and fine wine. Of course, the Frank Sinatras and James Bonds of the world represented a small portion of the readership, but by objectifying the lifestyle of the rabbit, Playboy became aspirational — for both men and women. It was alive and unrepentant, like a libertine cousin of The New Yorker
, whose dandy had inspired Playboy’s
rabbit. The concept was brought to life by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov
, for the delight of the accomplished and sophisticated rabbit.
As Playboy knew well, a diligent Don Juan scatters his seeds. So part of the idea was to show a variety of women pursued by male rabbits, from the suburb to the cabaret, won by unremitting charm and wit. The attention of the rabbit was often seen, on the cover, divided between a blond, brunette and redhead. In character too, the first women mimicked life. They were seen, next to the rabbit, as both prey and hunters donning jewels and cars.
The original covers, which frequently depicted the gentleman rabbit, were profoundly relevant to Playboy’s content, a quality that Art Paul deemed essential. In this context, the rabbit served as an invitation to a world perfectly designed for him. Manhood’s totem continued to grace the cover of the magazine for most of the 1960s and occasionally the 70s. This was still a period of greatness, but its form was clearly evolving. As Playboy began to deteriorate, the rabbit was gradually reduced to a detail or silhouette. In effect, readers were challenged to find the identity of the magazine.
Mascot Rabbit — (Top, left to right) April 1963, March 1969, August 1976; (Bottom, left to right) August 1981, July 1991 and December 2008
The year Playboy symbolically died was 1969, when, for the first time, the gentleman rabbit was omitted from all twelve covers of the magazine. With the disappearance of the rabbit, the reader also vanished from Playboy’s magazine and corridors. The rabbit figure became increasingly more cryptic, until it was totally forgotten. Eventually it was replaced by that oxymoron, the female bunny. The image of the rabbit may still be part of Playboy’s culture, not least in the logo, but the totem has been reduced to an uninspiring mascot.
Without a genuine identity, overlooked by a totem, the magazine became a mere vehicle for other ventures. Today it is coarsely designed to mirror the worst of the lad lifestyle. Magazine circulation may be relatively high, but it is culturally irrelevant. The idea of variety was abandoned in favor of post-mortem Marilyn Monroes and odd celebrities. They pose on covers that are bland and often recycled versions of the archive classics, reflective of Playboy’s inane and retro content.
The original concept of Playboy remains fiercely unique. Nudity may be ubiquitous, but it is rarely combined with substantive (and raw) politics, art and humor. Despite the magazine being the anchor of the company, Playboy seems committed to milking the brand through licensing, gambling and soft-porn material. This strategy has proven disastrous in the past. According to Christie Hefner, soon to be ex-chief executive, people “look to Playboy for glamour, for celebrities.” This belief is a far cry from the initial promise to deliver “humor, sophistication and spice.”