Commentary

Freud, Goethe, And The Bookshelf: The Ikea Papers

Is there anything more analog than a catalogue, thudding its way to your mailbox or doorstep?  

Indeed, the release last year of Restoration Hardware’s astounding 17-pounder seemed counterintuitive, if not downright arrogant. It caused howls of protest among recipients who saw its distribution as a perverse and wasteful move.

Meanwhile, RH, makers of the $7,000 linen sofa, countered that the toaster-oven-sized promotional thing was “carbon-neutral,” since it’s mailed only once a year.

Perhaps it’s not exactly carbon-neutral, but it’s certainly forklift-optional. Pity the poor postal person.

By comparison, IKEA, the world’s largest furniture seller, offers clean, modern, functional design that is super-cheap, and sends out more-sensibly sized catalogues seasonally.

We will review an ad promoting IKEA’s latest fall offering here in a bit.

But first, a little history.  It’s well-known that IKEA pioneered the now-ubiquitous do-it-yourself retail revolution.  It also introduced the concept of flat-Pack hell, which turns many a furniture purchase into a Faustian bargain. Whatever you save in cost is made up in frustration, pain, and sweat equity once you have to assemble the damn thing. Thus, the comedian Amy Poehler has joked that IKEA is Swedish for “argument.”

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Still, the retailer also brought to these shores the then-foreign-seeming concept of a separate kid’s playroom filled with a sea of colorful balls. Thus shoppers' children, forced to be apart from their parents, could experiment by jumping into a germy but short-term socialist-utopian play environment.

And let’s not forget that IKEA also initiated the offering of  a delightful and thrifty Swedish meatball lunch (with lingonberries), which sometimes helps to make the process of futon-buying seem less glum.

As with its store design, IKEA’s advertising is often smart, human, and even deliciously breakthrough. Back in 1994, the company made advertising history by running the first mainstream commercial featuring a gay couple.  (It only ran in three cities after 10 p.m.)

In 2003, “Lamp,” a spot directed by Spike Jonze, won every conceivable advertising award by offering some acerbic and unexpected straight talk. It made us feel less sad about disposing of our belongings by focusing on an abandoned lamp, sitting on a curb, getting rained on in the dark, like a Dickensian orphan.  As the camera pulls away from the street scene, a man in a raincoat, speaking English with a heavy Swedish accent, says to the camera: "Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you are crazy. It has no feelings, and the new one is much better."

Last year, Ikea's new ad, called “Book Book,” was a hilarious parody of an Apple product introduction, showing just how convenient, sharable and battery-free this particular combination of paper and staples could be.

This fall’s IKEA catalogue promo also throws the book at the book in a high-concept way. The company had German literary critic Hellmuth Karasek (who is well known there via a newspaper column and appearances on TV shows) review the catalogue, using the standards he always does in reviewing a literary work.

It’s pretty brilliant, in that it counters the idea of the mundane or utilitarian product listing by glossing it up with a tongue-in-cheek aura of sophistication. Let’s see, what should I choose from my library today -- Jane Austen or IKEA?  It asks you to take the catalogue seriously, but also to take it for what it is: a book on furniture. (Karasek cleverly calls it “a furnished novel.”)

The spot will be shown in a shortened version on TV in German-speaking countries and in Canada. (Why Canada?)

The set-up is simple and vigorously unpolished: We see a grey-haired man wearing thick black glasses and a powder blue polo shirt over an unapologetically obvious gut, sitting in an arm chair, holding visible notes and thumbing through the catalogue, sometimes cursing the trouble he’s having in finding the page he’s referring to.

It’s startling and unexpected to hear this much German spoken up-close and personal. While getting the translation through subtitles, it becomes clear that even the German word for “junk” is about seven syllables long. That said, the guy speaks very, very slowly, (part of the analog, old-school joke?) and is also slow to get to his points. It might be a little too long to take for some who don’t get his dry humor.

Apparently, Herr Doktor Reviewer said exactly what he wanted, with no coaching or editing from IKEA. But I was expecting something different from his opening statement, when he said it’s basically a “scandal” for the book with the world’s biggest circulation (220 million copies!) to have gone unreviewed this long. I thought he was going to say the scandal was that the most-read book in the world is a furniture catalogue, but that’s another story. Then again, he admits that unlike a book you buy, this one “elbows itself” into our lives.

One of the ad’s most entertaining passages is when Karasek reads directly from the copy about the happy effect that an Ikea bed will have on one’s sleep. "It is tempting at this point to put the book away, and carry on snoozing without it,” he says.

He takes issue with the catalogue's description of happiness as "a super-comfy sofa bed, a few side tables, and a strong WiFi connection.” (I’d tend to agree with that, if the sofa bed were somewhere on the Amalfi coast.) He says that Freud maintained that “happiness was never created as a permanent state.”

Word. I also like when he quibbles with word choices, as when he reads from the catalogue that during the awakening process, “You blink with your eyes.” I found that phrasing kind of poetic, but old Hellmuth asks, “What else would we blink with?”

There’s some 18th century-sounding piano music playing in the background to add to the tone, and certainly the guy gets better as he gets going.

All in all, I can’t possibly criticize the only commercial ever to mention both Freud and Goethe. And when asked whether people should read it, he borrows a line from Goethe to render his final opinion:  "What suits one may not suit all."

It’s a great counterintuitive move: Now we can't wait to get our hands on the thing, to see what all the fuss is about.

11 comments about "Freud, Goethe, And The Bookshelf: The Ikea Papers".
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  1. George Parker from Parker Consultants, August 27, 2015 at 5:50 p.m.

    I Guarantee that when it is entered at Cannes next year, Herr Doktor will be speaking English.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 27, 2015 at 8:27 p.m.

    Just don't put too much on that IKEA shelf - don't put much on it at all - or those little wooden dowls will crack that particle board side like asteroid exploding. It can't be fixed. One of the best parts of IKEA is their 59 cent plastic bags. But for marketing - they take the cake. And for cheap, Holy Toledo - very Faustian.

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, August 27, 2015 at 8:43 p.m.

    George-- Surely you jest! The whole point is how ponderous and tedious the German is, no? 

  4. George Parker from Parker Consultants replied, August 27, 2015 at 9:03 p.m.

    Barbara... Me jest? You must understand that as most of the judges at Cannes are Brazilian, the only Germans they are familiar with are Nazi war criminals. And the only Germans that can truly be of any interest to them are the ones with Nazi gold buried under the sidewalks of Zurich. Now you know why they call them Gold Lions... Well, that was before they invented the Titanium, Dilithium and Nozzleium categories, for all those loverrrly extra entry fees.
    Cheers/George

  5. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, August 27, 2015 at 9:25 p.m.

    Freud, Goethe, Briliiant!
    Thank you, Barbara.

  6. Andy Schulkind from Andy Schulkind LLC, August 28, 2015 at 6:38 a.m.

    Sometimes a catalogue is just a catalogue. 

  7. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., August 28, 2015 at 7:25 a.m.

    Not reading the book, I'll wait for the movie.

  8. Mollie Ottenhoff from Demi & Cooper Advertising, August 28, 2015 at 8:32 a.m.

    Great writing, Barbara. That was a fun read. 

  9. Don Perman from self, August 28, 2015 at 10:01 a.m.

    A smart, very funny piece.  If only Fairway offered such levity, in place of seniors ramming you their carts. 

  10. Alan Wasserstrom from None, August 28, 2015 at 3:08 p.m.

    A refreshing change from the deluge of similar media articles of late.

  11. Jim English from The Met Museum, August 29, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    In that early Ikea campaign from Spike Jonze, Barbara, you described the man with the heavy Swedish accent as an "inspiring branding device."  Perhaps Herr Doktor and his subtitled German not so inspiring, but tedious as you say. (Do I ever get tired of quoting Barbara Lippert?  Nope.)

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