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A Tale Of Two Magazines: Esquire & Playboy, Separated At 20. A Mr. Magazine™ Musing.

February 16, 2019

A Mr. Magazine™ Musing…

Lately, Esquire and Playboy have been in the news; Esquire for having a white, teenaged boy on the cover of its March issue, and Playboy for becoming a quarterly magazine with no advertising. It’s amazing how these two magazines share a lot of common history. And I thought it would be a good idea to go back in time, dig into my collection of magazines, and see how these two publications revolutionized the men’s magazine market, from as far back as 1933 when the first issue of Esquire was published.

If you read the editorial statement for the first issue of Esquire you can immediately tell that it was a rebel magazine. It was a magazine that was founded in rebellion of what was going on in the marketing and advertising world as it relates to the magazine publishing field. Here are a few comments from that editorial in the first issue of the magazine (keep in mind, the year is 1933):

It is our belief, in offering Esquire to the American male, that we are only getting around at last to a job that should have been done a long time ago – that of giving the masculine reader a break. The general magazines, in the mad scramble to increase the woman readership that seems to be so highly prized by national advertisers, have bent over backward in catering to the special interests and tastes of the feminine audience. This has reached a point, in some of the more extreme instances, where the male reader, in looking through what purports to be a general magazine, is made to feel like an intruder upon gynaecic mysteries. Occasionally, features are included for his special attention, but somewhat after the manner in which scraps are tossed to the patient dog beneath the table.

Twenty years later, Hugh Hefner, who was working in the accounting department at Esquire, left his job at the magazine and decided to start a magazine that would compete with Esquire. Whether that was his intention or not, I don’t know, but I do know one thing for sure, there are a lot of similarities between the Playboy of the ‘50s and the Esquire of the ‘50s. Check out Hefner’s message to the reader in the first issue:

If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you. If you like your entertainment served up with humor, sophistication and spice, Playboy will become a very special favorite. We want to make clear from the very start; we aren’t a “family magazine.” If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.

Most of today’s “magazines for men” spend all their time out-of-doors – thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast flowing streams. We’ll be out there too, occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance – we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.

Just take a look at the first issue of Playboy from 1953 and look at the December issue of Esquire 1953. They shared many similarities, from the Magazine for Men to Entertainment for Men, the nudity, the centerfold, which actually was in Esquire as the Esquire’s Lady Fair, and then later in Playboy as the Playboy Centerfold or Playmate.

However, if you take a look at the content of those two magazines from December 1953, you will notice that Esquire had almost 280 pages with a cover price of 50 cents, while Playboy had the same cover price, 50 cents, but only 44 pages.

And not only those two magazines, there were plenty of magazines out there for men, but they didn’t have the same sophistication that Esquire had or that Playboy would later have. Look again at the cover, which has been hailed by some as the reason for Playboy’s famous status among men’s magazines, the sensual Marilyn Monroe gracing that cover with a reprinted nude Monroe pin up inside taken from a calendar page. However, more December 1953 magazines had Marilyn Monroe on the cover, 3-D Star Pin-Ups came with 3-D glasses for the inside pictures. The magazine People Today, a pocket-sized magazine, had Monroe on the cover, plus a series of pictures where she was specifically posing for that magazine. And there was Modern Man, Argosy, Real, the exciting magazine for men, Man to Man, and Flirt, just to name a few.

So, you wonder what was it really that gave Playboy that later advantage? From its humble beginnings, it exceeded Esquire’s circulation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, reaching as high as 7.2 million copies, where Esquire peaked in 1972 at 1.25 million. Maybe it was the Playboy Interview or maybe the millions of men who will “get the magazine for the articles.”

Of course, if we take a deeper look at those two titles, you will notice that both the sophistication and the presentation were and continue to be an essential part of those two magazines. In fact, a lot of people referred to that era of men’s magazines in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as the men’s sophisticate magazines. Maybe that was a code word for sex, which Esquire was not known for after the early ‘60s, but Playboy definitely was.

With all of the changes in the editorial direction, in the editorial content, in the social fabric of society, in the type of nudes or no-nudes in those magazines, it could easily be deduced that neither Playboy nor Esquire are today what they used to be back in those early years of men’s magazines, but they still have the same fighting DNA that one can see if they follow the magazine issue after issue and don’t just look at one cover or one story as a separate entity.

Esquire moved from just being “The Magazine for Men,” to “Man At His Best,” to “Build A Life That Matters,” which is the tagline on its latest cover. And Playboy moved from “Entertainment For Men,” “To Entertainment For All,” to no tagline at all.

Esquire continues to be a very sophisticated publication that still offers a mixture of literary giants, celebrities, and also has its finger on the pulse of the American man’s magazine culture.

While Playboy has become a shadow of what it used to be in terms of circulation, advertising and frequency, with very limited circulation and no advertising, and a quarterly frequency rather than monthly. Even a cover price of $24.95, which can easily buy you two years of Esquire today and used to get two years of the monthly Playboy.

However, the fact that these two magazines are still making waves in the news today, after all of these years, is just a reminder to all who follow the magazine industry, as I mentioned earlier, that the DNA of those titles is still there and remains the foundation. One is still a rabble-rouser and the other is still offering sophistication for men in a completely different way than that sophistication appears in the other.

In fact, Playboy has gone from sending women off to the kitchen to cook and read their Ladies Home Companion as it advised in the premier 1953 issue, to its 65th anniversary issue being produced by an editorial staff that was more than 50 percent women. Yes, quite the change from 1953.

Either way, whether you want to pick up a copy of Esquire or you want to pick up a copy of Playboy, you’re certainly going to be in the middle of this raging firestorm that is taking place, where some are accusing both magazines of doing things that are not appropriate or not right.

The sad thing about some social media postings and other media outlets and commentators is that they apparently have never studied, or took the time to study, or have any institutional memory of what those two magazines have offered our society and pop culture over the years. Magazines are a living entity and the whole magazine is larger than the sum of its issues. And that’s one reason I am never quick to jump to conclusions, but I will be quick to remind people that before you judge, study your subject matter, study your magazines. And I’m sure you’ll see how these two great magazines have survived through all of these years, winning too many wars to give up the battle just yet.

Until the next Mr. Magazine™ Moment…

See you at the newsstands…

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