Hugh Hefner accusations: Can Playboy withstand the backlash? Brand experts weigh in

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The tarnishing of Hugh Hefner’s reputation was swift and immediate following the release of A&E’s docuseries, leading many to wonder if the Playboy empire that remains without its deceased founder will be able to withstand the backlash.

The 10-part series gives an inside look into the late founder’s unconventional lifestyle and career. It features interviews with numerous members of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle, including Playboy staffers and Playmates as well as some of his former girlfriends. 

Several women featured in the episodes that have aired have shared dark retellings of alleged sexual abuse, a trove of “revenge porn” and alleged encouragement of drug abuse. Meanwhile, hundreds of others close to Hefner who did not participate in the show have come out in defense of the magazine publisher, who passed away in 2017 at age 91.

Dead or alive, the accusations against Hefner pose issues for the brand’s future, experts say.

Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner (1926 – 2017) with a group of Playboy Bunnies at the Grand Opening of the Playboy Hotel-Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, 28th-29th April 1981. 
(Derek Hudson/Getty Images)

Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, told Fox News Digital that he believes the brand will be affected, but only in the short-term.

“There are these incoming missiles from many who are damaging the brand in ways that are not catastrophic but will affect brand perception in the short run,” Schiffer said.

“Playboy has been dealing with this reckless war from former Playmates, and those who desperately wanted to be in his inner circle because of all the benefits and accoutrements and attention and glamour. The challenge is we’re at a time when Generation Z and millennials are far more sensitive about issues about equality and how people are treated, and especially how males conduct themselves.”

Now, the brand is likely shuffling to distance themselves from Hefner’s era.

“Playboy is in crisis mode to protect the integrity of what the brand stands for,” Schiffer continued, stressing that it appears the company had already pivoted from its male-centered brand to one geared toward a female audience in recent years.

Still, the brand expert believes the company has to reiterate explicitly the steps it’s taken to appeal to a new generation of readers.

“If you were largely a male-centered brand and you’re now getting attacks from women and individuals that were part of the brand’s legacy, and you’ve since shifted to women as your core demographic, that’s a crisis in the short term. I don’t think it’s going to be a crippling or long-term crisis.”

In response to the docuseries, a spokesperson for Playboy issued a statement to Fox News.

“Today’s Playboy is not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy,” the statement began. “We trust and validate these women and their stories and we strongly support those individuals who have come forward to share their experiences. As a brand with sex positivity at its core, we believe safety, security, and accountability are paramount.”

A group of Playboy Bunny Girls from London’s Playboy Club waiting for Hugh Hefner, the American owner of the ‘Playboy’ business empire at London Airport. 
( Dove/Getty Images)

“The most important thing we can do right now is actively listen and learn from their experiences,” it continued. “We will never be afraid to confront the parts of our legacy as a company that do not reflect our values today.”

“As an organization with a more than 80% female workforce, we are committed to our ongoing evolution as a company and to driving positive change for our communities,” the statement concluded.

Schiffer added that the company’s leader, CEO Ben Kohn, is “zeroed in on the entirely different market than Playboy was about.” The challenge Kohn faces now is communicating that.

“They’ve done some of it. What they can do moving forward is they can have supporters come in that can speak to perhaps the changes that have occurred at Playboy, further affirm that Hefner and his family are no longer involved, and point to others who have actually said positive things about Hefner. It’s also about having people understand what could be some of the motives and drivers behind some of these allegations,” Schiffer said.

He believes Playboy’s brand equity can withstand this challenge.

“It’s a lot stronger than people think and that leadership behind a brand matters both good and bad. If you have good leadership you can navigate this in a way that may be painful in the short-term but saves the brand and shareholders,” he added.

Miki Garcia was a Playboy Playmate before she became Head of Promotions for the brand. She is one of the staffers who has spoken out against the late magazine founder.
(A&E/Getty Images)

Another brand expert, David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group in Atlanta, Georgia, said it’s obvious the company is “really caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Johnson believes it’s necessary for Playboy executives to separate the brand from its founder, which could prove to be difficult, he said.

“Hugh Hefner was identified as the face of Playboy for decades. Even though he’s gone and the family is not involved, these allegations in the consumer’s mind is that they associate him with the brand,” Johnson said.

The second expert said it’s possible loyal fans of Playboy are “probably going to shrug off these accusations because it doesn’t come across as shocking to them.”

“They’ve heard things went on in the Playboy mansion that people were not talking about. They may not approve of these actions, but they always knew he lived on the wild side. A lot of people questioned his lifestyle, so that’s not going to be the big shock.”

Holly Madison, Hugh Hefner and Bridget Marquardt during Hugh Hefner’s 81st Birthday Weekend – Birthday Party at The Playboy Club at The Palms Hotel and Casino Resort at The Playboy Club at The Palms Hotel and Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
(Photo by Denise Truscello/WireImage)

What does set off alarms for Playboy as a company is how to move forward in the “new society and political climate” the country is in, Johnson said.

“How do they break apart from [Hefner]? What do they do? We’ve seen some of this commentary in their statements, but still, advertisers seeing these accusations think of Hefner whenever the term Playboy is brought up. They’re synonymous. At some point, they’re really going to have to do a hard break for Hefner.”

Johnson said the way to do so is to “come out and really denounce him.”

“I would not be surprised at some point if they look at a whole rebranding,” Johnson added.

A potential rebrand, though one has not been discussed, raises concerns too. 

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner passed away in 2017 at age 91. 
(Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal)

“It raises the question, how substantial is Playboy any longer in this society? Playboy has all these other competitors online. Is it as relevant as it used to be? Is the business model even as relevant? Is this a final reckoning that Hefner presented a certain era but that era is, of course, no longer available?”

Johnson added that the allegations are “horrendous and completely serious.”

“If he were alive and no longer associated with the brand it’d be much easier to say, look, he’s not a part of this operation any longer, we disassociate ourselves with him, we’re a different company, he’s answerable for his actions and what occurred during his tenure. The problem is he’s not alive, so he’s not able to address it, and the brand’s got to be cautious of throwing him under the bus.”

Playboy impresario Hugh Hefner (1926 – 2017) with a group of Playboy Bunnies at the Grand Opening of the Playboy Hotel-Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA, 28th-29th April 1981. 
(Derek Hudson)

Johnson concluded with the recommendation that Playboy “get out in front of it” as the episodes continue to air. 

“Announce some kind of internal review, share what was uncovered, condemn the wrongdoings, and move forward as a brand no longer associated with Hefner,” he said.

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