How Clever Ikea Ads Make Us Feel Smart

When pranksters trick snooty art lovers, it's pure schadenfreude.

By Shannon Rupp 28 Mar 2015 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

I've always thought the braintrust behind Ikea showed a genuine genius for marketing, not least because they manage to seduce me into fibreboard monstrosities again and again despite the fact I do know better.

How could I not when so many, including my father, have yelled at me for succumbing to the mass-produced crap that hurts every woodworker's soul. The last time I moved, I discovered my pal Bunky sitting on the floor piecing together the mismatched doors in a gargantuan armoire while muttering, ''Ingvar, you Nazi bastard…''

''You know that was never proven,'' I began. He glared me into silence.

And yes, I do know all about Ikea's lousy labour practices that are as cheap and tawdry as their goods.

And yet I am entranced by Ikea's marketing. And the latest example of advertising for the Internet age is one of the most clever ads I've ever seen.

They're hawking posters, as it happens, but it doesn't really matter what they're hawking, because what they succeed in selling us is our own comforting sense of superiority.

Like most critics, I'm eternally fascinated by what moves the mob. What makes audiences buy crap and nonsense? Why did Fifty Shades of Grey find millions of readers? Why did Christy Clark get elected?

And why would anyone other than a student looking to paper over a cinderblock wall buy an Ikea poster?

Well, as the old adage about advertising goes: you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. And in this case, the sizzle is the joy one feels as Ikea mocks snooty art lovers who can't tell a million-dollar masterpiece from a 10 euro poster.

Ikea hired Dutch pranksters, LifehuntersTV, to promote their new line of posters with a slyly comic video shot in an art gallery in Arnhem. They show an Ikea poster amidst the ''high class art'' and then ask gallery-goers for their thoughts on the piece.

''It's a depiction of the chaos in his mind,'' says one earnest man.

''You can clearly see it concerns a form of symbolism,'' says another particularly pompous fellow. ''It's especially a beautiful spirit of an artist who can put all his emotions in his painting.''

One of the funniest moments is his grim face when he learns he's been had by the tricksters.

Perfect Ad

Although I thought it was unfair when the impish Lifehunter asked if the gallery visitors had heard of ''Ike Andrews'' and one commented that the name sounded familiar. Of course it does! The poor mug probably had IKEA-ndrews' wretched Ektorp sofa sagging in his living room at some point in his life. (Didn't we all?)

But this is the perfect ad for this era since it plays to the growing hostility to knowledge and education that characterizes the Internet age. The ad just launched, but with more than two million hits, it's not hard to imagine the masses enjoying the sight of wealthy art lovers making fools of themselves.

See: they're no better than us! They're not as smart as they pretend to be! They're not even as smart as we are: they'd pay anywhere from 1,000 to two million euros for that poster and we know it can be snapped up for 10.

It's really quite a comforting ad for the aggressively ignorant. We're not buying a poster, we're buying schadenfreude -- the pleasure that comes with watching the privileged taken down a peg or two.

As I watched the three-minute gem, I remembered a long ago copywriting instructor advising us that the best ads make an emotional connection with the audience -- although I'm not sure this is what she had in mind. They comfort audiences by emphasizing the familiar, she told us, although they're careful to dress it up as something new. The easiest ads to write are those that make buyers feel a need to correct some previously unknown problem, like ring around the collar. But for high-priced luxuries or decorative items, or some other essentially useless stuff, the advertising has to make buyers feel good about themselves.

Rich vs. street-smart

It's no mean trick to make seductive advertising and good copywriters have a well-tuned sense of what the public wants to feel right this moment. Given the depressing news about falling incomes, I think Ikea is betting right that most of us want to believe that our lives can be just as good as some elitist art lover for the price of a poster.

They may be rich, but us? Us? We're street-smart! The posters are in fact designed by street artists, which gives the products at bit of hipster cool, à la Banksy. Well, as long as no one thinks about how Ikea is mass-producing the work of these spray-can-toting images of authenticity.

Of course, mocking so-called art experts is fun all by itself. As someone who spent most of her career as an arts journalist, I can confirm that the well-heeled lovers of incoherent polysyllabic words are easily the most mock-worthy customers in the high arts pantheon. And I say that as a dance critic, fully aware that my crowd likes to drop its bon mots in French.

But it's also true that the pretentious egghead is a common target in pop culture, particularly during economic downturns. He -- it's almost always a he -- is a common figure in Depression-era movies since education and cultural interests have always been used as a way of marking class distinctions, particularly in the U.S. So Hollywood loved to play to its pleb audience by making the point that book-smart and real smart, by which they meant rich, rarely go together.

Play to the plebs

My favourite in the not-so-smart-professor genre is Bringing Up Baby (1938) in which paleontologist Cary Grant is reduced to begging for money from ditzy rich-girl Katharine Hepburn just to keep his dinosaur museum going. But the Golden Age of Hollywood is full of these satisfying twits.

Ikea is playing to the plebs in much the same way, but perhaps because of the enthusiasm with which those gallery-goers praised it, I have a curious urge to buy that Ikea poster.

The mischief-makers at LifehuntersTV are particularly good at these kinds of Emperor's New Clothes gags that flatter their audience by implying we're far more discerning than the average snob. You may have seen their hoax on foodies at a culinary in Houten, in the Netherlands, last fall, where they presented trade show samples of McDonald's food to the sort of people who gush over bone marrow-flavoured sauces and artisanal cheese.

They earned a chorus of oohs and ahhs for their ''organic fast food,'' of course. But to ensure their tasters weren't merely being polite, they asked a few telling questions. With a glint in his eye, the reporter invited them to compare his offerings to McDonald's. He could barely keep a straight face as these confident morons gushed about how much better the fresh, organic food tasted -- so much more ''pure'' than anything found under the golden arches.

Like the Ikea ad, it's a tribute to our willingness to believe anything anyone tells us, as long as it's delivered in a plausible manner. Or as one of the wicked young men peddling Big Macs to the culinary elite put it: ''If you tell people something is organic, they'll automatically believe it's organic!''

He's right. If the experts can't determine excellence, who am I to be picky? So I'm off to buy a poster and a Quarter Pounder and revel in these feelings of superior inferiority.  [Tyee]

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