But this reminds us that Playboy was once an important cultural force; and what are Chinese men and women buying when they buy jewelry or clothing with the Playboy bunny on it? They are buying a small stake in an anti-puritan, worldly vision of the good life. Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy philosophy,” which he used to set out in windy essays sandwiched between the pictorials, is still considered good for a laugh decades later. But every magazine does express a philosophy, whether or not it chooses to yammer on about doing so, and Playboy’s epicureanism was a powerful one. It practically amounted to a guarantee to the customer: if you bought Playboy, the only uplift you were at risk of encountering would involve lingerie, not morality.
When you were done being titillated by an issue of the magazine, the ads and the articles about stereos and cigars and cocktails were there to linger as an aftertaste, making a subtle but sharp imprint on one’s endocrine system. It is hard for us to appreciate what this kind of thing means in a strongly collectivist, egalitarian society. People who visited the old Soviet bloc, and who saw what blue jeans or heavy-metal cassettes did to the brains of the people there, will have some idea. It is an enigma of 20th-century history: stuff that seems trivial to a Western consumer somehow encodes a message of choice and private aspiration that can never be expressed as powerfully as an explicit proposition.
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