It is 6 November 2012: election day in the US. I’m in Chicago to cover the day’s events from President Obama’s election-night headquarters in the city.
It’s early – around 7am – and I know there’s likely to be a long day ahead so I pop to the convenience store around the corner from my hotel. I fill up a polystyrene cup with watery, almost-hot coffee, dump a couple of spoonfuls of sugar into it and head to the checkout. Behind the cashier, attached to the cigarette shelves, is a magazine stand. And stacked upon it: the latest edition of Playboy. On the cover on this election day is a woman, scantily clad but patriotically so: she’s donned the iconic Uncle Sam uniform from the ubiquitous “I Want You” First World War poster, designed by JM Flagg. There’s a star-spangled (well, Playboy bunny-spangled) top hat sitting jauntily on her head of long blonde hair, a royal-blue morning jacket fastened tight across her well-appointed frame.
But the US army, it seems, isn’t counting on Hugh Hefner’s publication – or others cut from the same cloth – to satiate the appetites of its recruits from here on in. Playboy, Penthouse and other so-called “adult sophisticate” magazines have been dropped from the shelves of the Army and Airforce Exchange Service (AAES), the body that runs convenience stores at US bases around the world. The AAES says it is a business move; this kind of titillation, it seems, just isn’t shifting the copies within army circles like it once did.
Sales of Playboy have slipped almost 90 per cent over the past 15 years. The Department of Defense (DOD) – which outlawed the sale of hardcore pornography at military bases in 1996 – has stated that those wishing to buy and read adult sophisticate magazines should be allowed to do so. But there is a cultural consideration at play here. As female officers prepare to join frontline roles in 2016 for the first time, the DOD says these magazines hardly promote the inclusive atmosphere an army based on equality wants to exude.
It’s not only Playboy fans that are seeing their options dwindle. Some 891 titles are being dropped in this latest round of cuts, among them SpongeBob Comics, The New York Review of Books and The Saturday Evening Post, the later the legendary bimonthly current-affairs magazine that gave artist Norman Rockwell his break.
There’s long been a debate about literacy in the US army; indeed, in armies around the world. Steven King, the horror writer, famously found himself in the middle of a political storm five years ago when he suggested that those officers who couldn’t read, would get “stuck in Iraq”, while their literate counterparts would go on to live fruitful post-army lives. But the joy of being a reader – and a new reader at that – is choice; the choice to wade through the densest of prose or read something glossy, where the words are far less attractive than the pictures that accompany them.
As newsstand magazine sales continue to slow – even if the offerings within the US’s vibrant magazine sector continue to grow – that question of choice seems particularly timely. So, as the reading choices for US army and airforce personnel dwindle, maybe your country, Mr Hefner – which bought 1.5 million copies of your magazine last year – does still need you after all.
Tomos Lewis is Monocle 24’s associate producer.