For a movie about a salacious, secretive, and to some, potentially shameful subject such as S&M, it sure feels like "Fifty Shades of Grey" is well out of the closet — or really, the dungeon.
Even the film's sequels are already being planned. Fandango, the online ticket company, says it’s setting a record, pre-selling more tickets than any other R-rated movie has.
And while it would seem the risque nature of this film could make selling spin-off merchandise a little more difficult than most, there is a lot of it for sale. It seems like there are as many variations of merchandise for the new film as there are Pantone color chips — and don't worry, for the graphic designer fan of the soon-to-be-released film, there's something for you too. However, the question remains: Who's buying?
If you were planning to crack open a bottle of "Fifty Shades of Grey"-branded White Silk or Red Satin on opening night, Paul Katz, a manager at L&P Wines and Liquors in Brooklyn, says perhaps you should reconsider. The wine has hardly been a best-seller, he says, with the bottles on store shelves mostly gathering dust.
"If you like the label you can get it," Katz says, "You’re taking on your own risk."
He hasn't read the book, and his wife was responsible for the store's purchase, he says. And when he calls to check if she had read the book — turns out she’d read all three — he found himself planning to make another purchase, again to please his wife.
“Do you want to go to the movie – to see it?” Katz says into his cellphone.
Another ticket sold. But there’s going to a movie, in the privacy of a darkened theater, and then there’s buying tie-in merchandise.
“I’m trying to be discrete,” says Kristi Faulkner, a co-founder and president of the martketing consultancy Womenkind, of the "Fifty Shades" merchandise. “But Target is selling them – who knew? Who could believe that?”
Indeed, Target is selling "Fifty Shades of Grey" adult devices – the kind with batteries. However, as Faulker points out, there’s a dichotomy between the book and its wider brand.
“So many people read these books digitally, privately, and yet these products are being sold in the most public way,” she says. “Are you going to throw your 'Fifty Shades of Grey' electronic device into your cart with your laundry detergent and your diet soda and your baby food and your pampers? Is that really going to happen?”
While the answer may be unclear, Faulkner says all this "Fifty Shades" merchandise is doing something. She calls it "permission marketing." After all, a "Fifty Shades of Grey" T-shirt could make a taboo subject like S&M a little more approachable.
Sometimes a gift is really a gift for the giver.
“Men are notorious for buying lingerie and things for themselves,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for guys – guys who didn’t read the book but want to benefit from the ideas, so to speak,” Faulkner says.
Which may be what purchasers of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company’s "Fifty Shades of Grey" bear have in mind. Innocently fuzzy, at first glance the bear looks like any typical teddy until you spot his tiny mask and handcuffs.
While only 20 percent of Fifty Shades readers were male, 54 percent of the bear’s buyers are men, says Bill Shouldice, president and CEO of the Vermont Teddy Bear Company.
But Jenn Drexler, a senior vice president with Insight Strategy Group, wants to make it clear that Mr. Bear, and most of the "Fifty Shades" merchandise work mainly as gag gifts.
“It’s one of those flip things where you can’t believe you live in a world where this can happen – so it’s so awesome,” she says of the bear.
And, FYI, the Vermont Teddy Bear company says so far this is its best-selling Valentine’s Day bear, but what may be good for the licensee may not always be good for the licensor.
“You have to wonder when does licensing crossover into value for the brand,” Drexler says. “When it goes into gag gifts?”
While the "Fifty Shades" brand is paid a royalty based on the sales of the bears, Drexler notes that if people aren't putting the teddy bear on their beds, or their baby in a onesie that says “9 Months ago mommy read 50 Shades of Grey” – it won’t do much for the "Fifty Shades" brand.
“They’ll get wallet share, but I don’t think they’re going to get heart,” she says.
When consumers love a brand, Drexler says, they’ll go as far as to have it tattooed — think Harley or Jack Daniels — but “I don’t know if anyone is doing a 'Fifty Shades' tattoo any time soon.”
The problem with this particular brand is it’s one women like to keep private.
“There’s a reason women weren’t getting together and talking — like 'I’ve always wanted to be tied up.' Like, that’s not replacing Oprah’s book club anytime soon,” Drexler says.
What title to read was up for discussion at a recent Brooklyn book club meeting. All the women in attendance are moms and while most were OK with the "Fifty Shades of Grey" baby clothes, host Megan Schade was not.
“I realize because it betrays my own Victorianism," she says. "In the sense that, how else does baby get here than by two people having sex? And that’s what this shirt is referring to."
The wine, while deemed a flop, was also approved as a potential gag gift.
“It tastes like a wine cooler," says Elizabeth Nelson, another book clubber. “Very inoffensive. It’s probably what people who like the book, like to drink.”
“I don't think this wine was made for drinking,” Schade says, “It was made as a gift. It's a giving wine."
But the bear seemed to stir up the most discomfort.
"Poor Mrs. Bear," Schade says.
"Not OK," says club member Renata Segura. "Is this for a child or a grownup?"
"I see a crazy cat lady having that teddy bear," Nelson says.
But once some basic facts were established — that the bear is a stuffed toy intended for adult play only, and that it costs $89.99 — Seguara decided she wanted the bear, but only if she didn't have to foot the bill.
“If somebody gives it to me for free, not my husband buying it for me with my money, with our money, “ she says. “Maybe from somebody else, but not from my bank account."