MySpace may have been displeased to hear of Playboy’s upcoming plans for a “Girls of MySpace” photo spread on Playboy.com, but they are doing little to stop it. The pictorial will feature up to 30 young women and will draw on the now iconic brand image of the popular social networking site, but Playboy is not seeking the consent or partnership of MySpace in their preparations. The announcement of the plan has stirred a great deal of controversy, mostly centered on the observation that MySpace’s user base is largely comprised of teenagers and pre-teens.
MySpace already appears to be suffering a crisis of its image in the wake of several criminal investigations which implicate the site as a tool for potential sexual predators. Despite extensive disclaimers and security tips posted on MySpace.com, young users continue to post provocative pictures of themselves and personal information like their address, school name, schedule, and phone number. Needless to say, these children are putting themselves in a dangerous position. Last month, a 14-year-old girl from New Jersey, Judy Cajuste, was allegedly murdered by an older man who met her through the site. Just last week, in Middletown, Conn., authorities began looking into seven separate sexual assault cases involving minor females baited by older men through MySpace. Instances like these have turned the looming fears of parents everywhere and the subtext of the website’s disclaimers into horrifying reality.
They have also contributed to a major drop-off in the site’s advertising revenue. According to Nielsen/NetRatings data, MySpace fell from 12.4% to 4.8% of all online display ads between September and December of last year. While they are still a huge force in the online community, with membership numbers soaring above and beyond 55 million, the statistics suggest that sponsors are beginning to sense something is wrong. The site’s operators may not have committed these evils themselves, but no one wants to take your side when your name keeps popping up in the context of child molestation, rape, and even murder.
With this dark fog cast over their site, you would expect MySpace to do everything in its power to prove itself a safe and secure online community which operates in the best interests of its young audience. You would expect it to continue building its excellent outlet for online music, films, and games, and to crack down on all explicitly adult content and adult-directed advertising. Instead, MySpace has held its door wide open for Playboy—arguably the most widely recognized corporate symbol of sex.
While MySpace is not explicitly participating in the Playboy.com pictorial, it is by no means protesting it. Playboy continues to buy ad space on MySpace.com and maintains its own membership and profile on the site, which has enabled them to easily conduct their search for participants in the “Girls of MySpace.” You don’t even have to be 18 to add Playboy to your Friends list, a way for users to join in chats and blogging with representatives of the adult magazine.
While they are still well within the pages of MySpace.com, female users are being asked to send in nude pictures of themselves. Male users, don’t worry, Playboy wants you to participate by submitting write-ups of romantic encounters made possible by MySpace: “Guys! Have you made a sexy love connection or an outrageous hookup through the internet? Have your sexcapades published on Playboy.com!” I know of several outrageous MySpace hookups, and you don’t have to look much further than the morning paper or the evening news to see that they don’t always end with a loving kiss.
Playboy has created a successful formula out of similar brand-incorporated photo shoots. The Women of Wal-Mart, Enron, Starbucks, Home Depot and 7-11 spreads appealed to adult audiences because they convert the mundane corporate environment into a risquÃƒÂ© world where the girl next door is eager to take her clothes off for you. When they produced the “Girls of McDonald’s” DVD in September of 2004, they embarked upon dangerous territory because of the fast-food brand’s huge appeal to a young market.
While this move raised some eyebrows, it didn’t incur even a slap on the wrist from McDonald’s themselves: “We neither condone, nor encourage participating in this type of activity. It is inconsistent with our brand,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Anna Rozenich said in statement at the time. Yet, like MySpace, they did nothing to stop it when they easily could have filed a lawsuit. The reason is obvious: free advertising. And sex sure sells.
What’s next for Playboy? “Women of Toys-R-Us?” “Ladies of Lego?” “Girls of Gerber?” Okay, that would be a little more extreme than MySpace, but it’s not too far off. If they are thinking that a majority of MySpace users are 18 or older, they are fooling themselves. The content and format of the site is specifically targeted at kids, because most kids are more adept with online networking than their parents. You may enjoy chatting, blogging, making internet friends, posting pictures, finding new music, and playing games online, but young people everywhere have gradually begun to live and die by these things. They have come off the playgrounds and out of the streets to inhabit the online community, and some things they are doing and finding there would shock and disturb most parents.
If you are going to build an online community that pulls in a huge number of impressionable young users, don’t allow Playboy to come into the room and taint everything. The sexual invitation implicit in “Girls of MySpace” makes MySpace’s case for trying to solve the problem of internet sexual predation look absurd.