Hello Kitty has gone wild?

HIS image can be found on everything from sandwich machines to laptops encrusted with Swarovski crystals.

But for some Hello Kitty fans, the return of one particular Kitty product is rocking websites: the shoulder massager.

In 1997, Sanrio, the Japanese creators of the feline character known as Hello Kitty, introduced the Hello Kitty shoulder massager through a licensee. Unbeknownst to Sanrio, the product quickly made its way into adult stores as a sex toy.

It “sold like crazy,” said Pamela Doan, public relations manager for Babeland, a chain of adult stores in New York City, Seattle and Los Angeles. Mary Ketterborn, deputy director of Babeland SoHo, added that “people are still asking questions about this.”

Sanrio’s US division vice president of marketing Andrea Sobel supports the good intentions of the Hello Kitty brand. “I have no idea what people may have been using,” she said. “The product was marketed as a shoulder massager. This is how it was sold.

But after two years, the masseur was abandoned. It has become a collector’s item on sites like eBay, offered as a “Hello Kitty vibrator”.

Now Sanrio has reintroduced the Hello Kitty massager through a new licensee, Asunarosya. And the company insists on the product’s stated original purpose: to relieve sore shoulder muscles. For now, the portable massager, featuring a pink or black shaft and a kitten-shaped handle with a matching hair bow, is only sold in Japan, although it can be purchased for 1,260. yen (just over $ 11) from the Sanrio Japan Online Store. Ms. Sobel said shoulder massagers are not a popular category with Americans, so there are no plans to distribute them in the United States.

Credit…Sanrio

“They are a health care product in Japan,” Ms. Sobel said.

Karen Hawkins, associate director of Japanese business development at Eurasia Group in New York City, bought 10 of the older shoulder massagers as a gift when she lived in Tokyo. “I bought them because I thought they would make a fun gift for several of my friends who may appreciate an item that, in the American context at least, might seem a bit risky,” Ms. Hawkins said. “I should probably point out that I don’t own one myself. I gave them all away.

With some 450 characters in the Sanrio family, Hello Kitty is by far the money cat. Having recently celebrated its 33rd birthday, it continues to dominate Sanrio sales, accounting for 80 percent of Sanrio’s store business and 95 percent of its licensed product sales.

Brian Bremner, BusinessWeek associate editor for news and author, with Ken Belson of the New York Times, of “Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon,” says keeping the brand in vogue is ” a huge challenge. “

“I think Sanrio has become a little more liberal in its licensing strategy,” he said. “You won’t find Hello Kitty shotguns or malt liquor, of course, but the brand has moved into more daring areas such as evening and ladies night offerings, areas that would have been unthinkable. a decade ago. ”

“Whether it’s a sign of panic or thoughtful marketing is hard to say,” added Mr. Bremner, “but Sanrio seems much more willing to take the Hello Kitty brand into the bedroom or wherever it can stay relevant with consumers. . ”

For her part, Ms Doan from Babeland, whose store photographed the Hello Kitty masseur in her holiday greeting card in 2001, said she hoped she could replenish the masseur someday.

“At the time, it was our best-selling novelty,” she said. “We didn’t stop selling it until it was abandoned. We will definitely store it again if it comes here.

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