IKEA DARES TO REVEAL GAYS BUY TABLES,TOO

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Ikea, the highly successful upstart Swedish furniture retailer, today takes a daring marketing step with a TV spot about a gay male couple.

Ikea and its agency, Deutsch, New York, believe the commercial breaking in spot markets is the first mainstream TV spot to feature a homosexual couple's relationship-including how they met and how they're getting along.

Although the spot could be considered controversial in some quarters, Ikea is unconcerned. A more likely reaction, it believes, is that the humorous portrayal of how "Steve" and his boyfriend settled on a dining room table will cement Ikea's image as an ultrahip destination for urban furniture shoppers.

Ikea is also implying with this breakthrough creative effort that gay relationships have entered mainstream marketing and therefore should lead to no negative fallout.

"Our goal wasn't to make a statement about gays or the gay market, but instead we wanted to show two men who are living a gay lifestyle who happen to be Ikea customers," said Peter Connolly, director of marketing for Ikea's Philadelphia-based U.S. division. The company sells a broad range of furniture at 12 booming East Coast and southern California outlets.

Because of the commercial's unusual focus, its dialogue could take on deeper meaning when one of the thirtysomething men pats the other on the shoulder.

"We have slightly different tastes. Steve is more into country. It frightens me, but I have compassion," says one of the men ruefully, sharing a grin with his companion.

As the two wander through their apartment and dine at their new Ikea table, the narrator explains that he and Steve met at the narrator's sister's wedding and have been together about three years.

Describing that they liked the sturdiness and contemporary design of Ikea's furniture, the narrator says their table includes a leaf they can buy later, and adds: "We've got another leaf waiting for when we really start getting along."

The 30-second spot is one of four in a new pool that includes a couple grappling with middle age and a family with an adopted son. The commercials continue Ikea's theme, "It's a big country. Someone's got to furnish it," created five years ago by Deutsch.

Focusing on realistic lifestyle examples is becoming an important part of Ikea's strategy; last year, the company aired a spot showing a divorced woman buying furniture for the first time on her own.

"We like using [realistic] people from all segments of society and the choices they're making for high-quality furniture people love and can still afford," said Linda Sawyer, account exec.

The strategy appears to be working well for Ikea, which is currently experiencing "tremendous growth," Mr. Connolly said.

Since entering the U.S. in 1985, Ikea has soared to success wherever it has opened by offering a broad range of lower-price contemporary furniture in huge, 300,000-square-foot stores and enabling shoppers to take their furniture home immediately.

The privately held company won't reveal sales, but analysts say it's now the No. 1 furniture outlet in each of its areas. Ikea is said to be scouting new sites in the Midwest and Northwest.

The company is also riding a wave of growth in the home furnishings market that began last year, apparently fueled by changing consumer lifestyles and the pent-up need for furniture that developed during the recession that began in the late 1980s.

Home furnishings sales grew 9.4% last year to $43.8 billion, and the trend is continuing, as consumers in February spent nearly as much on home fashions and furnishings as they did on apparel, retail industry analysts said.

"Buying furniture is evolving into an important choice reflecting personalities, lifestyles and emotions, and we're positioning our brand as exactly that," Mr. Connolly said. "We want people to associate Ikea with the warmest, most emotional furniture image in the world."

Melanie Wells contributed to this story.

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