Controversy over Bugs Bunny stamp has collectors hopping mad, but for the Postal Service, it's the perfect carrot to lure consumers.

A HARE-BRAINED IDEA?:

May 31, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Think for a moment of a rabbit.

Not just any rabbit. Think of a tall, gray rabbit who wears white gloves and walks around on his hind legs. He is a cocky creature who chomps a carrot the way W. C. Fields bit into his cigars: confidently. He opens every encounter with these smart-alecky words:

"What's up, Doc?"

Now imagine this cheeky rabbit on a 32-cent U.S. States postage stamp. Does that thought cheer you? Does it make you sick? Do you ask yourself what kind of abomination the U.S. Postal Service will contrive next? Daffy Duck? Sylvester the Cat? Thufferin' Thuccotash!

Not since the Civil War has America's house been so divided as it is today over the fitness of Bugs Bunny to fly around the country on the nation's mail. (Just kidding.) Some 265 million images of the terrible 'toon are being printed. Soon, he'll be everywhere.

If all those stamps are sold, it will yield the Postal Service nearly $85 million, making the Bugs stamp the most profitable in the nation's history, far ahead of the leader and previously most controversial issue, the 1993 Elvis Presley stamp.

Some people love the idea. Some just hate it. (Isn't that the way it always is with Bugs?) Some look upon the whole affair more in sadness than anger, then take to drink.

In the first of these three groups, of course, are the architects of the plan: the marketeers and publicity agents of the U.S. Postal Service. They have ready answers for all critics, devious rationales mainly, but occasionally a burst of sound reasoning.

"We've heard from serious collectors who have the opinion that this is a commercializing of the stamp program," says Barry Zeihl, the post office media agent assigned to the Bugs project. "But we've heard plenty of positive stuff, too." Zeihl is among the rabbit's more passionate promoters.

"Bugs Bunny," Zeihl declares with rising zeal, "is a unique part of American history. He is the American Rabbit!"

Bosh! say serious philatelists such as Michael Baadke, senior editor of Linn's Stamp News, of Sidney, Ohio, the sacred codex of American stamp collectors.

"A lot of people don't think this is appropriate," he says. These include the more "traditional" collectors, some of whom object not so much to the subject being honored -- the nervy bunny, Bugs -- but to his creators and owners, the Warner Bros. movie company.

They object to the deal the studio has made with the Postal Service to market a lot of peripherals that relate to Bugs -- Bugs mugs, Bugs envelopes, ties, stationery, letter openers, you name it -- through some 30,000 post offices and 453 postal stores.

Zeihl calls these items "stamp-art-based retail products."

Gary Fleming, owner of Stamp & Coin World in Towson, calls the whole thing a good deal for Warner Bros. The split, which will return 65 percent of revenues to Warner Bros. and 35 percent to the Postal Service, sure seems like one.

"I would love to be able to produce something and put it in post offices and have them sell it for me," Fleming says. "Is the U.S. Postal Service going to be a gift shop for Warner Bros.?"

It's all necessary, says Zeihl. He describes the split as "the

standard industry licensing agreement." The Postal Service needs the money, he says. "We need to stay in business."

Also, this kind of marketing has been done before, if not in such a big way as it will be for Bugs. There was the James Dean stamp and the James Dean T-shirt, which both came out last year.

Not everybody was happy to see Dean's sulky face on the U.S. mail, nor Elvis'. But all these "icons of American history" have their fans. Just like Bugs, whose admirers tend to be little kids who find his insolence winning.

Which brings up another pillar of the post office's strategy: to stimulate interest in stamp collecting among children by putting pictures on stamps that interest them.

"Young people will be the lifeblood of this hobby," says Zeihl. "If the post office doesn't try to increase interest in this hobby, who's going to do it?"

Piffle! say some of those other serious stamp collectors who responded to an editorial written by the editor of Linn's Stamp News, Michael Laurence. Laurence argued that putting cartoon characters on stamps is precisely not the way to capture the imagination of children.

When it comes to philately, he says, it is wrong to treat children like children.

The editorial drew many letters endorsing that point.

"Every time the USPS places another childish gimmick on a postage stamp, another child decides stamp collecting is for babies and gets on with hobbies that don't patronize," wrote David Thompson, of Seattle.

The letters suggested that the deepest discord is not over whether stamp collectors like Bugs Bunny or not, think he's dignified or absurd. It springs from what they believe Postal Service marketing strategies -- and attitudes -- are doing to their hobby.

"The USPS is promoting stamps as a fad, like hula hoops, POGs and their ilk," wrote Robert J. Hubsmith, from Kinnelon, N.J.

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