NEW YORK — Humor is taking over the boudoir.

The move toward levity rather than raw sex appeal is being shaped through an innocent enough genre — licensed characters. The demand for feel-good icons is creating a bit of a cult following in lingerie, whether it’s Mickey, Barbie, Supergirl, a nostalgic TV series such as “I Love Lucy” or new, stylized characters such as French Kitty and mascot dog Spot Says.

A sophisticated sense of satire also is entering the global marketplace, mainstream lingerie advertising campaigns and point-of-sale materials such as Wonderbra’s headline for its new worldwide ad blitz, “Yes, They’re Real. Thank You.” There’s also a crop of amusing new labels surfacing such as Save the Queen, Myla Sex Life Accessories and Croque Moi (Bite Me, in French) at major European stores such as Galeries Lafayette.

The demand for humorous merchandise has been growing over the past year at department stores, when sportswear areas began featuring T-shirts with updated icons that have a retro flavor, such as Betty Boop, alongside sportswear separates. The idea filtered down to young, contemporary underwear, daywear and sleepwear, which did their own rendition with contemporary dual-purpose items from names such as Paul Frank and David & Goliath.

Now the appetite for characters that have an updated, sophisticated spin in intimate apparel and sleepwear has gone mainstream to specialty chains such as Delia’s and Hot Topic, as well as mass merchants Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. The new audience is a fashion-hungry generation of 12- to 18-year-olds who want characters that have attitude, a hip identity and represent an expression of affirmation.

A key reason for the comedic twist is that reality does bite, say marketing and manufacturing executives. A growing number of consumers — young and old — are looking for products that offer a whimsical release from an environment afflicted by terrorism, the Iraq war and unemployment.

Brand-image guru Marc Gobé said character animation in motion pictures such as “Shrek” and “Shark Tale” have made a huge impact.

“This is an idea we need to look at,’’ he said. “It is interesting to see the success of character animation in motion pictures which are the biggest box-office movies. There’s a reason for that. Characters take us away from reality. And people need to laugh at themselves with all of the seriousness of their lives right now. They need to escape.”

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