IKEA furnishes fodder for debate on gay life COMMERCIAL MESSAGE

April 25, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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