In the early 1970s, a six-minute promotional film was circulated to tout the kind of luxury travel possible on a jet registered as N950PB.
Set to a jazzy score by Nelson Riddle, the video shows a typical flight aboard the sleek new DC-9. A Mercedes 600 limousine whisks passengers to the red carpeted air stairs while chefs stock the plane with roast beef, hors d’oeuvres and cream puffs. Once the jet’s aloft, its twin engines hum as passengers recline in electric seats, watch movies and dance while flight attendants thread balance trays of cocktails and chilled champagne.
What could this high altitude paradise have been, you ask? The N950PB, also known as the Big Bunny, was the private corporate jet of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Enterprises.
For many, the name Playboy needs no explanation. Suffice it to say, the brand distilled all the excesses of the sexual revolution. Best known for its eponymous magazine, Playboy at its peak was a swinging empire that included clubs, hotels, casinos, a mansion—and a jet.
At the hop
The Big Bunny took its last hop in 1975. But PLBY Group, the latest incarnation of the late Hefner’s naughty dominion, announced this week that a new jet will soon pick up where the old rabbit left off. The new Big Bunny is a Bombardier Global Express jet, its size and profile closely approximating the old one. Like its predecessor, it will be solid black and feature graphic designer Art Paul’s famous rabbit in a bow tie logo on the vertical stabilizer.
While it’s a very handsome airplane, the Big Bunny will have slightly different duties from the old one, which was an aircraft famed for Hefner’s fur-covered waterbed and a staff of ever-accommodating Jet Bunnies.
“The Playboy brand is bigger today than it ever has been before, driving $3 billion of consumer spend[ing] with products in over 180 countries,” chief brand and strategy officer Rachel Webber told Adweek. “But one of the areas that we don’t have today that we had in previous decades was the ability for celebrities and influencers to experience the brand in person (the way you could attend concerts and movie nights at the Mansion, for example). So the Big Bunny can in essence become a small, flying Mansion, engaging an influential crowd on a flight and also taking them to those live experiences.”
Entertainment for men
It’s an enduring testament to the power of branding that Playboy can still generate that kind of revenue. It’s especially impressive considering Playboy’s print magazine—the company’s revenue workhorse for 66 years—ceased publication in March 2020. It soldiers on as a digital-only platform.
Playboy was the first periodical to combine the elements of postwar men’s adventure pulp. The mix was simple: serious literary fare and images of women wearing little or nothing. Having produced the first issue at his Chicago apartment’s kitchen table in 1953, Hefner built Playboy’s reader base to 1 million by 1960. Readership surged to 5.6 million by the early 1970s, when yearly profits rang in as high as $12 million (about $96 million in today’s dollars.)
Flush with cash, Hefner wrote a check for $5.5 million and ordered a DC-9 from McDonnell Douglas in 1969. Ostensibly a flying office, the Big Bunny was also a jet-propelled advertising tool. When he wasn’t entertaining celebrities like Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra at 35,000 feet, Hefner steered the plane into the bright horizons of publicity, such as letting Sonny and Cher use it for touring or staging “Operation Babylift,” which flew 41 orphans from Vietnam to adoptive parents in America.
When the 1973 oil embargo set jet fuel prices into the stratosphere and Hefner found himself traveling less, the plane became a fiscal albatross. In 1975, he sold it to Venezuela Airlines.
The rise of adult VHS tapes meant much turbulence for the Playboy empire, and by 1986, all the clubs were gone. With the rise of the internet, where all variety of explicit photos and video could be had for little or nothing, the party was clearly over. Hefner, who died in 2017, lived to see it end.
The new Playboy
Magazines come and go, but a solid brand has a way of living forever. As a mark that embodies luxury, leisure and nostalgia for Mad Men-era living, Playboy remains a powerful licensing machine. A visit to its site reveals a cavalcade of merchandise, including hats, hoodies and water bottles, along with more intimate sexual wellness apparel.
There’s even an entire Big Bunny line in the works for Q4 fashion, travel and lifestyle products that promise to “tie directly to the designs and ethos of the Big Bunny,” Webber said.
No brand can stay top of mind without a bit of help, however, and this is where the jet swoops into the frame. “We see the Big Bunny as essentially a backdrop for content creation,” Webber explained. “All of marketing is now content creation.”
“Our previous form of brand storytelling was a print magazine. That format simply doesn’t work anymore,” she continued. “A method of transportation and a physical space is so much more interesting because it allows us to have content creators interact directly with the brand.”
Baggage in the hold
It’s easy to imagine the highly sharable Instagram photos and videos possible with the right influencer aboard a private jet. But one challenge for Playboy won’t be the Big Bunny, but all the Bunnies that gave it its name.
From the earliest days, the Playboy Bunny was an indispensable element to the Playboy mystique. But that element of branding is unlikely to play very well in 2021. In fact, for some, it didn’t play well in the old days, either.
In a 1963 story for Show magazine titled “The Bunny’s Tail,” pioneering feminist Gloria Steinem, using the pseudonym Marie Catherine Ochs, secured a bunny job at the Playboy club’s New York outpost. Her undercover reporting was an eye-popping read dolloped with lines such as: “The Bunny Room was chaotic and jammed with the usual assortment of girls in high heels and little else.”
While Hefner long maintained that his brand was as liberating for women as men, the cocktail waitresses working in six-inch heels and serving drinks to sloppy businessmen by bending backward and doing the “bunny dip” likely begged to differ. The New York Playboy Club employed 100 bunnies, and bunnies also staffed the jet.
Webber said that “the Playboy brand has intentionally evolved tremendously in the past three to five years” and that the flight attendants will have uniforms that “will reflect that brand transformation.”
As for the potential problem of consumers crinkling their brows at the sight of that logo, the executive says it’s OK not to like it.
“The vast majority of our consumers today are in a generation that know the Playboy brand as a lifestyle apparel and consumer products brand,” Webber said. “The brand today represents ‘the pursuit of pleasure for all,’ and our iconic logo is a symbol of creative self-expression, the freedom to be yourself, the ability to embrace your sexuality and to embrace fun in your life.”
“And, of course, if the Playboy brand isn’t for everybody, that’s OK,” she continued. “And if a previous customer doesn’t see a brand for them anymore, that’s OK as well.”