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Playboy's clothed call: Who needs to see headlights?

The wraps are off the latest iteration of Playboy magazine, which is to say the wraps are on. Effective with the March issue now on newsstands, the models' naughty bits now are covered, blocked or otherwise obscured.

The result is Playboy is now like Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue, also coming out this month, but less racy and diverse.

Or an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, but less racy and diverse.

The new edition of Playboy, the historic publication founded in Chicago 62 years ago, probably is a perfectly satisfactory example of something. We won't know for sure until it's more clear what that something is. Right now, the emperor is trying on a lot of different stuff to see what looks good.

Playboy got out of the frontal nudity game because there's no niche there, particularly among the millennial audience everyone covets, and it threatened to limit the brand's reach in some conservative markets at home and abroad. But if the print edition is taking on the likes of Esquire, GQ, Maxim or Men's Journal, it's not doing so very aggressively.

One success on the business side is that this issue secured the first domestic car ad to appear in Playboy's print edition in 25 years.

The advertisement, in the gatefold behind the cover, plugs the Dodge Viper, though that's not literally spelled out. There are service marks and a reference to the carmaker's website. Teasingly, the word Viper doesn't appear.

The ad doubles as a meta joke, though this too may not be clear at first.

Photographs of models shot and posed in the Playboy style of almost 50 years ago are strategically bisected by pictures of the front and back of cars. So instead of derrieres, there are tail lights. Instead of breasts, there are headlights.

Headlights. Get it?

Even now, Playboy still may not be safe for workplace perusal, depending on how your employer and co-workers feel about bare butts and advice about phone-sex addiction.

But if the parts of a woman's body typically covered by a tiny thong bikini were the only deal breaker and you're dying to read an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in the break room, you're in luck.

So where Playboy readers once might have claimed they sought out the magazine just for its articles, such as the 1976 Q-and-A in which then-presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter confessed that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times," this month they get the host of what last year was the 15th most-watched cable news program.

Of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maddow tells the magazine, "My Spidey sense tells me he's going to do well in New Hampshire. We'll know by the time people read this."

Yes, we will. He didn't.

Gracing the cover is lightly clad Sarah McDaniel, a reputed Instagram sensation. She has her arm outstretched as if this were a not-at-all-unnatural selfie in which strands of her hair just happened to form the shape of the magazine's rabbit logo by her neck, for Playboy devotees who still look for that sort of thing.

The story inside — a three-paragraph lead-in to some pics by media scion Theo Wenner — is headlined "Who is Sarah McDaniel and Why Are We Obsessed With Her?"

If readers didn't know going in, however, they may be excused if they still have no idea.

If it wasn't clear in the parlance of the magazine's own promotions what sort of man read Playboy before it retired its gauzy brand of frontal nudity, it's harder to discern now. (Or what kind of 14-year-old, based on the headlight thing.)

The ads suggest a bar crowd, between plugs for a bourbon, a rum and dueling vodkas, three tobacco products and an e-cigarette. Plus, there's the article "How to Pick Up Your Bartender."

For the reader no longer able to show his face at his neighborhood tavern, an ad for Playboy licensed merchandise — a part of the company thriving even as print has struggled — includes a branded flask and special cocktail shaker, so he could go it alone at home.

Another ad promoting Playboy Fragrances over two pages touts their availability at Sears and Kmart. This paints a certain picture, while the story "So What Exactly Do I Get For My $400,000" on the McLaren 675LT paints another, even when it faces a plug for floor mats.

But the magazine always traded in a blend of reality and fantasy. Take everything at face value and you risk confusion when confronted by "the perfect set of headphones" from SMS Audio hawked in the Effen Vodka advertorial pages and "The Only Headphones You'll Ever Need" from Grado touted in a piece a few pages later.

At least it's not advising jazz fans on the best reel-to-reel tape recorder for their hi-fi needs, which is the musky, musty trapped-in-amber quality the magazine has long given off.

Though aging founder Hugh M. Hefner remains atop the masthead and appears in an archival 1970 photo from a fishing trip with Barbi Benton, this feels like someone else's magazine.

The articulation of the new Playboy modesty Hefner once might have been expected to pen has instead been farmed out to "American Psycho" author Bret Easton Ellis.

"Playboy has evolved," Ellis writes. "There is no reason to be a nostalgist about this, because in some ways we're much better off. The opportunity for sexual gratification is now a tap away for many people, and nudity is no big deal. Playboy helped shape this moment."

Going forward, no one was going to read it for the artifacts.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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