Marge Simpson poses nude, but Playboy keeps on singing the blues

For 20 years, The Simpsons has distinguished itself from the pack, both among other cartoons and other sitcoms. Whether it was name-checking Ayn Rand, poking fun at the Pope, or parodying Greenpeace, the animated show has always offered a level of cultural criticism that transcends its animated roots. This month, the first family of Springfield is smashing another taboo with a pictorial in the November Playboy featuring the program's blue-beehived matron, Marge.

For the program, this is an interesting move. News Corp. (NWS)'s Fox network has called the Playboy pictorial a stunt to commemorate the show's 20th anniversary, but that explanation seems insufficient. Paired with Marge's steamy on-screen lesbian kiss back in March, it would appear that The Simpsons may be running down a bucket list of cultural prohibitions that it still hopes to explode.
The stakes are much higher for the long-ailing Playboy Enterprises (PLA) than they are for Marge and her family. Following a second-quarter loss of $9 million and a 15 percent drop in revenues, the company's listing flagship brand now seems officially desperate for advertisers, for subscribers, for publicity -- for anything. It has combined its July and August issues, reducing its frequency to 11 issues a year, and founder Hugh Hefner, now 83, seems ready to walk away from 56 years of editorial control by putting the magazine up for sale.

The hackneyed refrain about Playboy, "I only read it for the articles," is woefully outdated; it has been years since the magazine's articles -- or, indeed, any of its editorial material -- reflected any real insight into mainstream society. As recently as the early 1990s, Playboy was required reading for anyone who wanted to claim a degree of cultural sophistication. But the magazine's long decline into irrelevance makes Hef's tryst with Marge Simpson -- herself a cultural icon enjoying a comfortable middle age -- seem about 19 years out of date.

Yet Hefner's monthly still has pretensions of cultural relevance, even if that culture is locked in the James Bond-accented lounge-lizard demimonde of the 1960's. One can easily imagine Hefner, his cadaverous frame clad in trademark black pajamas, gathering his editorial staff to get ideas on something hip to juice sales. Having exhausted discussion of the newfangled e-mail and unable to convince his staff that a Sally Struthers pictorial would sell copies, he latches onto Marge Simpson and the desperate hope that her blue-and-gold charms might be just the thing to get his mag back on track.

The funny thing is, old Hef may be right. Personally, I'll be picking up the November Playboy. I'll check out Marge Simpson naked, and then I'll read the articles. If they're good, I might take a peek at the December issue, and if that issue is decent, maybe I'll resubscribe. That's the path I've taken recently in subscribing to New York, GQ, and Imbibe, the excellent "magazine of liquid culture" from Portland, Oregon. But a stunt can backfire, too. Esquire's e-ink animated cover last October persuaded me to buy a copy -- but the dubious achievements within ensured that I wouldn't soon return.

As entertainers from P.T. Barnum to Madonna know, the question isn't whether a promoter uses a gimmick but rather whether the promoter delivers. Marge Simpson's jaundiced charms may inspire readers to pick up Playboy -- maybe for the first time in years -- but whether they return depends on Playboy's ability to stay relevant. And with Hef still gripping the reins, that seems like an increasingly difficult trick.

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