My visit to Playboy: just like any other content

Photo: © Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com (Email: glennfrancis@ pacificprodigital.com)

So, I get this call (this was a few years ago, when I was Forrester’s TV analyst). The Forrester salesperson wants me to do a strategy session at Playboy Entertainment Group, the parent company of the Playboy Channel, the Spice Channel, and all of Playboy’s video assets. I take it, because I’m the TV expert. I resolve to treat this just like any other content.

I’m in Boston and they’re near Los Angeles. This is a full-day session and I need to be energetic despite the flight and the time-change, so I arrange to fly in the afternoon before and get a good night’s sleep.

My host invites me and a colleague to the “Playmate of the Year Video Release Party” the evening before the strategy session. It’s by the pool at a fancy hotel. I decline, because I don’t want to stay up late before I present. The Forrester sales guy and my other male colleagues then hector me mercilessly about skipping the party and question my manhood. They insist that I have to go because they can’t. Resistance is futile. So much for “just like any other content.”

Photo: Brian Jones, AFP

I fly out with a colleague and we go to the party. The pool area is packed. There are three kinds of people there: ordinary businesslike men (who are dressed a little more stylishly than I’m used to), ordinary businesslike women, and some rare, third species of woman who is not just beautiful and very skinny, but actually perfect. They are very easy to spot. There are only a few of these alien creatures, but they glide through the party and heads turn in their wake and the men follow them like fish on fishhooks. Just like any other corporate event.

At the center of the party is Hef, who is sitting on a sofa, surrounded by some of the alien women, surrounded by lots of men, surrounded by a steady, moderately loud buzz of activity. Hef is dressed in a robe, unlike anyone else at the party. He is quite old.

Photo: © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Somebody announces the Playmate of the Year and we all look at the podium set up by the pool, but she does not appear. She’s doing some local TV interview. About ten minutes later they iron things out and she mounts the podium and I look across the pool at her as she starts to speak. Here’s what strikes me about her: she has a really warm, friendly smile.

The next day I wake up and arrive at their headquarters, which is architecturally spectacular with a striking collection of modern art on the walls. We meet in their boardroom. The boardroom has a large granite table in the middle, the approximate size and shape of an aircraft carrier. I resolutely do not imagine what has happened on this table. Because this is going to be just like any other strategy session.

I run the strategy session and the discussion is pretty typical, just as it would be with any other TV channel. I learn many interesting facts about Playboy and its customers, none of which I can share with you because of client confidentiality.

After the daylong session, they insist on giving me a studio tour. Their state-of-the-art HD studios and sets are impressive. For some reason, there are no naked people being filmed on the afternoon of my tour.

At the end of tour we see their uplink facility. We look through the glass walls to see a very typical TV control room. There are a half-dozen workers, both genders, sitting at consoles monitoring the uplink of all the Playboy channels. On every one of the many screens in the control room are various sex acts. It’s very weird for me to see these workers sitting in a little room surrounded by sex, but for them, it’s just like any other content. Another day at the office. Pass the doughnuts.

Then they show me their huge satellite dish which is sending these signals up to the sky, whence they will go down to living rooms all over America. In a four-by-four matrix of monitors, there are 15 screens of sex and one screen of women playing tennis in tennis whites. I ask about the tennis. “We have extra capacity so we’re leasing one channel to the Tennis Channel,” they explain. The tennis players keep sweating, running, and hitting the ball, oblivious that they’re surrounded by fornication.

If you’ve followed the news lately, you know that Playboy is going to stop featuring nude women in the pages of its magazine. After that, they’ll finally live up to what was constantly in my mind as I conducted this strategy day: just like any other content.

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  1. I was that sales guy and if I questioned your manhood I apologize. You did have to go though, not because I couldn’t, but because it was the right thing to do.

    I could have gone. I was invited. Forrester wouldn’t pay for my travel. I considered paying my own way before deciding not to.

    Good times!

  2. And I was the other colleague who attended! A once in a lifetime experience for certain. Too bad we had to leave the party early to rest up for the strategy session. We heard it got really wild late night!

    1. I was keeping you anonymous, Andrew, since I know not everyone in your family was excited about that visit.

      It was great to share it with you. Especially since we had no idea what we were in for.

  3. I wish I’d known this story when you were still at FORR… we could have had a chuckle over a shared experience in between duking it out on privacy stuff.

    Back in my agency days, I ran strategy for a number of catalogue clients. One season, the Playboy Catalog account manager was on holiday, so I was asked to cover. One of my tasks included running a photoshoot, and approving post-production images. The photoshoot may be one of the most surreal days of my life… but it was fun. Our client insisted we all go out afterwards, ran up a $3K bar tab, and asked me to just “add it to the invoice.” That was awkward.

    The post-production process was even harder. We had set up a private bullpen for the artists since we felt it wasn’t appropriate to have GIANT nipples and very graphic VHS covers onscreen in the open. Every day I’d go back there to review images, and would find myself saying things like, “can you nip her waist in a bit more?” and “please get rid of that hair on her toe!”

    The experience made me feel more manipulative than any other advertising work I’ve ever done, and left me with some strangely conflicted feelings about the sex workers industry.