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IKEA furnishes fodder for debate on gay life COMMERCIAL MESSAGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Mark and Alex need something for their home, they often go to Ikea. "When it comes to fixing up the house, these decisions are made together," says Mark, 30, an attorney. "We like shopping at Ikea -- it's fashionable, it's high-end contemporary and the prices are reasonable."

Another television commercial for the home furnishings store? No, Mark and Alex, who have been together for 11 years and live in Coldspring Newtown, are real-life versions of "Steve" and his unnamed companion, the gay couple featured in Ikea's groundbreaking and controversial commercial. The ad, in which the men shop for a dining room table and remark on how it symbolizes their commitment, has drawn both plaudits and protests for Ikea, a Swedish company with 12 stores in the United States, including one in White Marsh in Baltimore County.

The commercial, which began airing on March 28, is part of a new campaign and thus is running currently only in Ikea's larger and more established markets of Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

"It's nice to see a store reach out to the community," says Mark, who asked that he and Alex's last names not be used. "It portrays a couple with taste and in a nonoffensive way, rather than guys with a feminine aspect or with a lot of innuendoes. That's real refreshing, and it makes me want to continue giving them my money."

But other consumers are withholding their dollars: Angered that the ads portray gays as "normal" and equate a live-in relationship with marriage, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association is urging members not to shop at Ikea and to call or write the company with their complaints. The group, which is headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, similarly has called for boycotts of advertisers on shows that they find offensive, such as "NYPD Blue," which features some nudity and raw language, and an episode of "Roseanne" in which the title character kissed another female character.

"We don't believe Ikea should run these ads because they are offering a distorted viewpoint of homosexuality," says Patrick Trueman, the group's Washington-based director of governmental affairs. "They are not like any other people in society. They are doing what Christian society and Jewish society teach is a sin. Homosexuals living in a committed relationship are .000-whatever percent of 1 percent of households. This is part of the effort by homosexuals to be normalized in society."

Ikea has received hundreds of calls and letters about the commercial, and most have been "overwhelmingly positive," says Bill Agee, advertising manager at the company's U.S. headquarters outside Philadelphia. Shortly after the ad began airing, an Ikea store in Hicksville, N.Y., had to be evacuated after an anonymous caller claimed a bomb was planted there in protest of the commercial, but none was found. Ikea says that has been the only such protest.

No political statement

The 30-second ad isn't meant as a political statement, Mr. Agee says.

"We're not proselytizing," he says. "We just want to make the point that everyone is welcome at Ikea."

The ad is part of a 14-commercial series that Ikea calls "Life Stages," featuring customers who don't necessarily fit the usual mom-dad-2.3-children stereotype of the American family. One features a family buying furniture for a recently adopted child, another a recently divorced woman furnishing a new home for herself and her children.

"We're no more targeting gays with this ad than we were targeting only single mothers with that ad,"

Mr. Agee says. "We're a progressive company. But the prototypical nuclear family is also a major part of our customer base, and we were very careful in how this was shot, and how we would not expose children to it by running it only after 10."

Indeed, the ad is nothing if not tasteful. The two men talk about having been together for three years, since meeting at the wedding of one of their sisters, and, they are, after all, shopping for a dining room table instead of, say, a more suggestive bed. One playfully jokes that his partner's furniture tastes lean "more into country, which frightens me, but at the same time, I have compassion."

And there's less of a sexual overtone in this first commercial that features a forthrightly homosexual couple than in other ads that over the years have cagily played with homoerotic images without being overtly "gay": Think of the Calvin Klein ads with their naked, or nearly so, men shot in moody black and white. Or those print ads for Paco Rabanne cologne, featuring saucy dialogue between a couple in which you couldn't tell if only one or both lovers were men. There was even a recent Kmart ad featuring two men shopping for power tools that many in the gay community consider to be directed at them.

"There's a tremendous amount of advertising out there that is gay-sensitive," says Jeff Vitale, president of a Chicago-based marketing firm, Overlooked Opinions, that advises firms on how to reach gay consumers. "If you're looking for it, you see it, but if you don't, it passes you by."

As with any time gays are portrayed in the media, the Ikea ads have drawn a range of reactions. Some laud them for portraying gays as people not merely defined by their sexuality. Others think the advertisers were so concerned about offending that the couple was made to seem indistinguishable from married heterosexuals.

"I wish that one guy would dress better," Jack Garman, manager of the gay bookstore Lambda Rising in Baltimore, says with a laugh. Mr. Garman says he doesn't object to the ad but thinks that even though it features two men, they seem just like a married couple talking about an extendable dining room table that would accommodate a growing family. "It doesn't really speak to urban gay males who aren't necessarily interested in moving into suburbia and having a family."

'Pasteurized' images

Media images of gays are generally "pasteurized" for a heterosexual audience, says David M. Smith, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. He cited the movie "Philadelphia," in which Tom Hanks played a gay man who barely touches his partner in the course of the film.

"A heterosexual couple could hold hands and embrace, but gay people are not accorded the same latitude in showing affection," he says. "Still, this is clearly a step forward."

Larry Kramer, the gay playwright and activist who was particularly vocal in his criticism of "Philadelphia," says he believes Ikea is courageous in being the first to use an openly gay couple in a television commercial.

"I'm so sick of seeing what the networks do all the time when they portray gays -- grungy guys in jeans with their hands on each other's behinds," says Mr. Kramer. "These guys seem like decent chaps."

If one purpose of advertising is to get attention, the Ikea commercial has certainly succeeded there.

"In terms of advertising, there's so much clutter out there now, thequestion is, how do you break through all that?" says Roxanne Lefkoff-Hagius, an assistant professor at the University Maryland College Park, who specializes in strategic marketing and consumer behavior. "It pays to get extra attention, and Ikea certainly is getting it."

But some attention may be unwanted, such as that from groups who oppose homosexuality, Dr. Lefkoff-Hagius says. Yet even that risk may be a calculated one, she adds.

"Maybe it is offending people, but if they're seen as a progressive company, maybe those people are not their consumers anyway," she says. "The more traditional person may not be going to a Scandinavian modern furniture store. It's hard to please everybody, so you have to go for your segment. Still, it is risky."

It is too early to tell whether the ads have had a positive or negative effect at the cash registers, and, besides, Ikea is a privately held company that does not reveal sales figures. Mr. Agee would only say that sales have been excellent. Industry analysts say that the company, which has been in the United States since 1985, has about $400 million in annual sales and has been successful in each of its markets.

Ikea may be able to run more risky ads because its U.S. stores are all on the East or West coasts, except for a lone outpost in Houston, and it has more of an urban orientation than some of its counterparts -- its designs are contemporary rather than traditional, and many of its products are sold unassembled in flat, easily carted-away boxes. Urban areas tend to have a higher concentration of gays, as well as people who are more likely not to have a problem with gays' sexual orientation.

Overlooked Opinions' marketing surveys show that more than 50 percent of gay men live in a central city; 32 percent live in suburbs. Only 16 percent live in a small town or rural area.

It also found that the average household income for gay men is more than $50,000, which Mr. Vitale says can be attributed to the fact that many of these households have two working adults with no children.

Some dispute these numbers -- saying that, like any firm in its field, Overlooked Opinions is in the business of showing corporations how lucrative its market is -- but many agree that the gay market is worth seeking.

Still, in the larger scheme of things, a very small minority of consumers link their buying to their politics or morals, says Dr. Lefkoff-Hagius. They also happen to be very vocal, she adds.

"There are some politically active people who will boycott a company. Or people who look for products that have 'environmental' on the label," she says. "And for some things, like a car, image is important. But in today's society, people are in such a hurry, if they want a product, and the price isn't too high for them, they're going to buy it."

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