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As Playboy Bunny Logo Multiplies in Licensing Deals, Collectors Are Barely Interested in It

from – Over the past nine months, Playboy has turned its bunny loose, slapping its famous logo on a tanning spray, a disposable lighter, a mattress, a couch and a line of drinks designed to boost the libido.

The new Playboy paraphernalia should be welcome news for Ken Ritchie, who has a wing on his house precisely to hold stuff like this.

The 57-year-old Memphis resident has spent most of his adult life collecting and selling Playboy merchandise. For about a decade, he was spending $3,000 a month on ceramic statuettes, pinup calendars, Playmate autographs and back issues of the magazine. When another collector in Dallas got divorced and had to sell his stash, Mr. Ritchie rented a 16-foot U-Haul truck and carted off half the man’s trove including a Playboy pinball machine.

But Mr. Ritchie turns up his nose at what Playboy is selling now.

“These are a lot of silly things that have no connection with Playboy,” Mr. Ritchie says. “How many guys do you think are going to go out and buy navel rings because they’ve been licensed by Playboy? It’s not a must-have item.”

Playboy launched more than a magazine when it put Marilyn Monroe on its inaugural issue in 1953. It created a brand that came to represent the rebel ethos of its libidinous founder, Hugh Hefner. Over the years the parent company, Playboy Enterprises Inc., has capitalized on it by attaching its logo to nightclubs, cuff links and other trinkets.

As advertising has drained from its magazine, Playboy has come to rely more heavily on its licensing efforts. That’s rankled some core fans, highlighting the delicate task facing Playboy and other struggling magazine companies: how to capitalize on their brands without diminishing their value in the eyes of the people who cherish—and in some cases profit from—them most.

One of those people is Mike Travis, a 57-year-old retired schoolteacher in Madisonville, Ky. Mr. Travis says he owns roughly 15,000 Playboy items. His collection includes small things like glassware and ashtrays and bigger items like ceramic statuettes and an old typewriter from an office that Playboy closed.

About 20 years ago, Mr. Travis drove to Chicago and convinced a fellow collector to part with a set of gold-plated blazer buttons, the likes of which he says he hadn’t seen before or since.

Mr. Travis and his wife later moved into a larger home so that he could devote the entire second floor to his collection. His wife doesn’t have a problem with her husband’s hobby, Mr. Travis says. In fact, she travels with him to flea markets to help him fill gaps in his collection. “She got a new house out of it so she ought to be happy,” he says.

But when Mr. Travis sees some of the newer items like tanning sprays and the Playboy Passion Enhancer, a bottled cocktail that promises to “maximize stamina, performance and desire,” his own passion wanes. “There are some things I do draw a line on,” he says.

Part of the problem, avid collectors say, is the pace at which Playboy is churning out new products and the tenuous ties some of them have to the brand. “They just put their logo on everything,” Mr. Travis says.

Playboy has been licensing its brand on an array of seemingly random products for decades, of course. However, Christie Hefner, the founder’s daughter who served as CEO until the end of 2008, had sought to usher the brand up-market during her tenure. Over Ms. Hefner’s 20-year run, she canceled licensing contracts with makers of items such as fuzzy dice and air fresheners and instead targeted high-end apparel and accessories for women.

Scott Flanders, who took the top job last year, is shifting gears, making expansion of licensing a priority. “I think we might have been a bit more conservative about category expansion previously,” says Mr. Flanders, a former newspaper industry executive.

The CEO acknowledges that it is difficult to expand the high-margin licensing business and please hard-core collectors, a small group, at the same time. The ubiquity that fuels strong sales is precisely what turns off collectors, he notes.

Still, Mr. Flanders says Playboy takes pains to determine whether new products will sully its media properties or other products. “So far, we can’t point to an example of a product we’ve licensed that we regret,” Mr. Flanders says.

Playboy reported $37 million in licensing revenue last year up from $9.2 million in 2000. Licensees typically pay Playboy a percentage of sales to use the name and logo on their products. The U.S. print edition of the magazine generated $55 million in sales last year.

In February, Playboy reached a deal to outsource its licensing business in Asia, where Playboy-branded apparel has become especially popular among young women.

That doesn’t sit well with John Camacho, a 38-year-old collector in Michigan. He has an iron-on image of the cover of the September 1976 issue of the magazine but he says he’s reluctant to put it on a shirt given the growing popularity of Playboy apparel among women. “Now it’s almost too feminine to wear something like that,” he says.

Mr. Ritchie, now in his fourth decade as a collector of all things Playboy, says he is having a difficult time mustering much enthusiasm for the brand that helps pay his bills.

The Chicago native started out in the late 1970s collecting back issues of the magazine and later, autographs from Playboy Playmates. As his collection grew, he stored it in a large, double closet in his home. Every six to eight months he emptied the closet, spread out everything on the floor, took out his video camera and got it all on tape. Each time, he made 200 copies and sent them out to his best customers. “Then I’d sit back and wait for the phone to ring,” he said. “And it did.” Within three days, he said, everything would be gone.

But the past few years have been a slog for Mr. Ritchie, a former post-office truck loader. Playboy’s licensees now make so much of everything that it doesn’t make sense to buy anything, he says.

“You reach a point where guys just look and say, ‘Why do I need these?’ ” Mr. Ritchie says.


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