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The Strange History of Playboy in China

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As favorable reviews come in for Playboy’s newest issue that forgoes nude photos for a renewed emphasis on long form journalism, the magazine remains a total unknown in the market where Playboy earns more than a third of its revenues: China.

The brand has almost universal name recognition among Chinese consumers, 97%, where it isn’t associated with carnal desires—strict censorship has banned any officially imported magazines from entering the mainland—as much as vague notes of Western sophistication by lower- and middle-class buyers.

The brand has carved out a fairly lucrative business in China over the past 25 years by licensing its bunny logo for men’s dress shirts, suits, bags, shoes, belts, bags and backpacks. In 2014, $500 million of $1.5 billion in total sales originated in China.

“China is one of the things that Playboy did right in the past 20 years, but whether that was by design or by accident is unknown,” a marketing executive told Foreign Policy in its interesting story this week about Playboy’s history in China, which probably saved the company from an earlier reckoning. Fresh off a new 10-year licensing deal with a Chinese company, the country might also end up subsidizing the new-format magazine should it fail to revive in the struggling print business.