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Nights at the Manila Playboy Club

My father used to go to the Manila Playboy Club. Dad, a bon vivant, was a regular in that opulent members only club located along the sprawling tree-lined waterfront promenade known as Roxas Boulevard, but which he calls by its old name, Dewey Boulevard, until this day.

He never ran out of stories from those late nights when the rest of the world was already asleep. And the stories were endless and as varied as the women in their sexy fishnets and theatrical “rabbit” costumes — pink, red, emerald green, electric-blue-you name it — and their giant bunny ears.  The drinks overflowed, the music was good. Time didn’t matter. Oh, the wild surrender.

I didn’t really know why he told me stories of those nights. Perhaps, because, everyday when he drove me to school, I asked endless questions. I always asked what he did, where he went or what happened next. And he always answered. He’s cool like that. He satisfied my inquisitive mind and anthropological interest all the time. He’s my best interviewee, bar none.

Businessman Leandro “Biboy” Enriquez, a known Filipino hotelier and considered as one of the pioneers of Manila’s night life and the only son of tycoon Doña Trinidad Enriquez, brought the club to Manila in the ’60s as a franchise operation of the US Playboy Club.

In its heyday, it boasted a membership of 3,000 that included foreign diplomats, cronies of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the rich and famous men of Manila.

But sleaze, the fading glory of downtown Manila and aging Bunnies eventually led to the club’s closure in 1991 even though it was among the longest international Playboy Club franchises to exist.

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Like many other businesses, it succumbed to the country’s shrinking economy that marked the end of the Marcos era.

I thought of the Manila Playboy Club when I read about the recent death of Hugh Hefner, the controversial Playboy magazine founder.

As soon as news of his death spread, there was a debate on whether he was some kind of liberator of women or just another misogynist old sleaze.

I’m not going to join the debate. To me, it is clear that Hefner exploited women and made a business out of America’s post-war social liberalism. And the rest of the world took the cue. Of course, the men, and maybe the Bunnies, will disagree with me.

But what is clear is that Hefner successfully built his empire because sex sells. It is one big business and even as the world supposedly has already evolved, sex continues to sell to this day.

Indeed, as it was in Biblical times, sex sells.

Businessmen know it and it doesn’t even have anything to do with Hefner and his Bunnies.

In the Philippines, it’s no exception. 

Many businesses have become empires because they capitalize on sex.

 A giant motel operator in the Philippines, the one with a hunk and his wife as its endorsers, for instance, is doing so well that its owners are thinking of going public, industry sources told me.

 It could happen as early as next year, if the owners decide to push through with it.

There are many companies that have grown because of the sexual undertones they use in their marketing schemes.

Every now and then, a new ad would ignite a firestorm because of sexual innuendos and glaring perversion.  Many of these ads have been banned.

Who among us have not forgotten those bikini-clad girls on white horses promoting an alcoholic drink, or that popular actress being massaged by a guy on a beach, or the brandy with its tagline — “Nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos?” Another ad that was taken down was that of a telephone company’s billboard of a semi-naked woman with the words “satisfaction guaranteed.”

An expert said many people believe that sex sells even if it does not necessarily sell.

Ira Kalb, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California, says there are many reasons for this.

Blame it on the reptilian brain, he says.

“Sexual desire is built into the reptilian brain. Because people’s thoughts come from inside their own heads, they extrapolate their feelings to situations that do not apply,” he says in an article on the Business Insider.

“Whether it sells a product or not, many agree that sex will attract attention. The problem is that not all the attention is positive,” he adds.

And because it is taboo in many circles, sex generates even more attention.

But at the end of the day, companies should realize that they must be able to establish and communicate their unique selling proposition.

“(C)ompanies should invest their money in communicating the unique benefits of their products in their advertising,” Kalb says.

I agree.

I worked as an intern for Ace Saatchi & Saatchi during my college years. I was assigned to write and create promotional materials for a brand of soap. I could have easily done the easy way out – relate it to sex, because it will sell.

However, I had a feisty feminist boss who chose instead to highlight the qualities of the hand soap. I learned a lot from her.

Hey, I even saw the comic strip I made become one giant ad on a commuter bus, many years after I finished that internship and graduated from the university.

In the middle of heavy traffic, I remembered seeing the bus along East Avenue in Quezon City and it made me smile. My ad worked and we didn’t even use sex.

I think when one has a good product or service it will sell and make the mark. Sex does sell, but it’s not enough. At the end of the day, the whisky must be good or the phone company must indeed satisfy its customers.

Hefner’s Playboy magazines succeeded not only because it had women’s legs grotesquely spread across its centerfolds, but also because it featured some of the best literary writers – John Kerouac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov and even Ian Fleming, to name a few.

The Manila Playboy Club survived for almost three decades because it was also a place where multi million-dollar business deals were plotted and where businessmen, including my dad, negotiated with their clients. It was also a place were you could meet the associates of Marcos, the diplomats and the bankers.

Yes, it wasn’t just about the Bunnies.

By now, the world should know that in life and not just in business, there are many things better than sex – photographs, a poem, a literary opus, a taxi-ride in a foreign city, an opera, good music, the list goes on and on.  And no, it’s not even the chocolate cake.

As for my dad, he is 70 now and is already happily retired. He never talks about those nights at the Manila Playboy Club anymore. Perhaps he has forgotten.

As for the Bunnies, I hope the world has been kinder to them since they gave up their bunny ears and moved on with the rest of their lives, decades away from those nights somewhere in  Dewey, in that dimly lit club, the one with the Cabaret room.

Iris Gonzales’s e-mail address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com

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