They'll never know because they'll never stop showing naked women, and it sells very well—Playboy has about 4.5 million “readers.” And yet this success couldn't be taken for granted when Hefner began. The photograph had been invented in 1839, and the word “pornographer” had entered the dictionary a mere 11 years later. Over the next 114 years, pornography was still very far from mainstream. The emerging soft porn carried the same stigma as the really dirty stuff, grainy black-and-white picture cards and stag reels made with old hookers and alcoholic johns. It was a vile business in an underground market. And because you had to show up to obtain it, participating in pornography meant publicly admitting that you were a pervert, even if only to a group of other perverts.
What pornography needed to be profitable on a mass scale was to be removed from the sexual ghetto and brought into the living room. It needed someone to adopt it, domesticate it, and teach it manners. As a mythmaker on the scale of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner did for porn what Henry Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle.
As an adman, Hefner saw the need to package sexuality into aspirational categories, to tell a story about it that placed men in the narrative itself in a way that was not just acceptable but downright desirable. Thus he packaged himself as a Victorian gentleman at the hunting lodge.
Credit Hefner with popularizing the mythology that this was “adult” entertainment for “men,” adding the same aura of pseudo-sophistication that is still exploited 50 years later by bars that call themselves “A Gentleman's Club.”
“In launching Playboy, perhaps the smartest thing Hugh Hefner did was in establishing his personality as that of a witty, urbane sophisticate who enjoyed the company of many, many young women,” writes Tim Carvell on McSweeneys.net. “After all, who knows how many fewer copies the magazine might have sold, had he instead depicted himself as a solitary masturbator?”
Later, when Playboy started to succeed financially, Hefner further gentrified the perception of sexuality by hiring writers like Norman Mailer and John Updike to offer intellectual essays on the cultured life.
Hefner's medium also reinforced his message. Compared to other transmission models of the time, Playboy had several distinct advantages. First, it could be easily purchased or subscribed to—and thus enjoyed privately in the home. Second, it was positioned as a mass-market magazine—communicating in one stroke the idea that commercialized sex was acceptable in mainstream America. Third, it could attract advertisers for upscale products that had nothing to do with sex, except as an accessory to creating the ultimate bachelor's pad. Advertising was not merely a revenue stream for Playboy; by surrounding his pinups with sophisticated products, Hefner clothed the nudity in one more layer of legitimacy.
As one critic put it, “‘The 'brilliance’ of Playboy was that it combined the commodification of sex with the sexualization of commodities.”
Contra the critics
For all his brilliance, it's worth noting that Hefner didn't actually have the guts to put his name anywhere in the first issue. Quoth the Playboy.com FAQ: “If the magazine failed, he felt it would be easier to find another job in the industry.” In the era of blacklisting, he wanted to duck any moral outrage that came his way.