“She was smart, funny, and absolutely gorgeous,” says Caleb Urry, describing one of the Playboy playmates he’s met. “Drop-dead gorgeous. I mean, I was thinking that she was like Helen of Troy–I couldn’t believe that, like, some foreign country hadn’t claimed her and forced us to go to war over her.”
Not everyone would feel the need to ascend to such metaphoric heights in describing Miss November, but Urry has his reasons. As Playboy magazine’s student representative at the University of Chicago, he must walk a delicate line. Sure, he dined with playmates when he visited the Playboy mansion in LA, but his perks aren’t all so debauched: he’s also invited to any local plays or book readings the magazine sponsors. He deliberately tempers his enthusiasm for the playmates’ charms with a little worldly reservation, noting that some of them are actually quite good conversationalists. This is educated goggling.
Urry’s attitude echoes that of his employer, whose famous blend of corn-fed flesh and self-conscious intellectualism has produced some fascinating marketing strategies over the years. One of the more recent is the new college-representative program, through which Playboy hires students to promote the magazine on their campuses.
It would seem the college market would do just fine left to itself–in fact, it’s hard to imagine more avid readers than 18-to-21-year-old guys–but apparently it’s been in need of a boost lately. In vice president of public relations Cindy Rakowitz’s words, “It’s a market that’s been proactively missed for a while.” She insists, “Sales are good–they’ve always been very good. We just think they can be better. We just want insurance that we’re not going to go down on college campuses. We used to be the only game in town, and now there’s a whole plethora of magazines–Details, say, or Spin, as well as a legion of smaller titles–devoted to the college market.”
The college-rep program is a case of proactive marketing taken to a stunning level of convolution. Playboy could probably quadruple its college sales just by sending a few playmates on tour. But it’s not enough merely to increase readership–Playboy Enterprises wants college kids to pick up its magazine for the right reasons.
“Playboy used to be part of the intellectual debate in this country,” says Urry. “It was a voice for both sides–leftist and right-wing–and was associated with discourse in colleges all over the country. They wanted us to get Playboy back into that debate.”
The magazine is now running a series of articles geared toward college readers, as well as assigning its reps, who’ve been hired under a semester-long pilot program, to coordinate some sort of brainy event during their tenure. Urry has the impression that only the University of Chicago sticks to this high-minded agenda, wistfully mentioning a fashion show at the University of Miami and a battle of the bands at the University of Washington. He’s particularly envious of the annual jazz festival Playboy sponsors on the west coast, and envisions something similar here if he’s kept on next year.
Rakowitz ardently denies that there’ve been any such lowbrow promotions: “There wasn’t any fashion show. I don’t know where you got this.” She emphasizes that the program is all about stimulating much-needed intellectual discussion, particularly discussion of the burning issue of political correctness on campus. The PC question may have worn thin in some circles, but it’s an issue with an obvious place in Playboy’s heart, and it’s quite close to Rakowitz’s as well.
“On campuses where the PC veneer is very prevalent, intellectual debate is being stifled,” she explains. “The whole academic environment is supposed to encourage intellectual debate. When you stifle a student’s right to question authority, you are really stifling their intellectual development.”
The PC forums, as well as an “editorial discussion group” to be held at the Playboy mansion, are intended to fan this flame. But Urry has had a hard time drumming up interest in a panel around campus and even more trouble finding speakers. “I wanted to get students and professors, but they were reserved about the idea. And leftist, progressive-type organizations didn’t want to be part of a Playboy marketing scheme.”
The campus Democratic Socialists of America, African-American Students Association, and Women’s Union all demurred, though none for explicitly anti-Playboy reasons. The AASA just didn’t have any members who were interested in participating. The DSA was unenthusiastic about cosponsoring an event with Playboy, though its representative, Daraka Larimore, stresses that it was more a logistical problem than a political one–the group just didn’t have time to vote on the issue before Urry made up posters for the event.
In fact, Larimore is a friend of Urry’s and was intimately involved with the panel’s conception, which hasn’t turned out quite as Urry intended. Says Larimore, “My idea was instead of having the same debate that’s gone on for four years–has feminism gone too far? are poor white people oppressed by this tyrannical movement called political correctness?–I figured we’d have some progressives talking about how it’s affected their organizing.”
“The final panel is, well, sort of in between those two ideas,” Urry says guardedly. “It’s somewhere between the boring version and my version. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”
At the other end of the spectrum the College Republicans, fearing a leftist juggernaut of some sort, refused to sign on unless two other right-wing campus organizations–the Federalist Society and the Edmund Burke Society–were invited. “The more I hear about it, the more I’m against it,” James Erhard of the College Republicans says. “We kept an open mind, but now it sounds like it’s going to be so radical. It’s just–well, it’s absolutely perverse!”
Actually perversity is probably the least of Urry’s worries. His final bill includes some highly usual suspects: the de rigueur ACLU representative, a member of Feminists for Free Expression, the editors of Libido magazine, and an antipornography feminist lawyer.
Urry reserved a room for 100 people, but says if he gets 50 he’ll be happy. Still, he professes optimism about his event, pointing out that with proporn and antiporn feminists in attendance things are sure to spark. But even if no chairs are thrown, he’ll still be satisfied. Thanks to Playboy, he will have had a chance to foster that rarest of endangered species: a brisk and highly intellectual debate.