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OK, so a new spot for Ikea home furnishings dares to feature a gay couple. Prepare for the howls of outrage, but don't be looking for leather and nipple rings, or so much as a lisp. It's just two mild, thirtysomething guys with a nice loft apartment, lots of blond wood and plenty of tasteful, inexpensive furniture. In a triumph of non-threatening characterization, this couple is to pioneering gayness what Diahann Carroll was to pioneering blackness.

Steve: "Well, you know, we went to Ikea because we thought it was time for a serious dining room table, and ... "

Steve's Roommate: "We have slightly different tastes. I mean, Steve's more into country. It frightens me, but at the same time I have compassion."

Steve (laughing): "We've been together about three years."

Roommate: "I met Steve at my sister's ..."

Together: "Wedding."

Roommate: "I was really impressed with how just well-designed the Ikea furniture was."

Steve: "He's really into craftsmanship."

Roommate: "These chairs are really sturdy."

Steve: "This table included a leaf."

Roommate: "A leaf means ..."

Steve: "Commitment."

Roommate: "Staying together. Commitment. We've got another leaf waiting when we really start getting along."

And that's that: an innocuous lifestylespot in which the gayness of the characters is almost incidental. Almost. To bring focus on enduring craftsmanship, Deutsch, New York, scripted the de facto marital "commitment" in terms likely to give the Rev. Donald Wildmon an aneurism. But confrontational it isn't.

Nothing, save a pat on the shoulder, even remotely suggests the unspeakable acts of perversion for which Wildmon envisions them toasting in hell. Or, worse for these guys, sentenced to an eternity of Early American furniture with orange shag and a nice oaky Chardonnay perpetually 1 inch out of reach.

So let's leave aside the nominal controversy and take up the real news: This is wonderful advertising, something late arrived to Deutsch's Ikea campaign. The agency won the business four years ago, hard pressed to top the goofy, warmhearted creative done by Goldberg/Marchesano & Associates, Washington. (One spot showed a lab-coated Ikea product tester bouncing again and again on a bed while his assistant repeated, "You're gonna get hurt. You're gonna get hurt. You're gonna get hurt.")

The first few years of Deutsch creative were neither as charming nor as instructive. The mordantly funny "It's a big country. Someone's got to furnish it" campaign visited various schlocky, ultravertical retailers, such as a "just mattresses" store with a fast-talking salesman in a garish polyester outfit. The object was to define Ikea's variety and good taste by documenting the opposite. But the gambit of impressing young sophisticates by ridiculing the declasse was less clever than smug.

Then, about a year ago, "It's a big country ..." began to evolve into a lifestyle campaign, dramatizing how the Ikea experience touches, and complements, the lives of believable characters. It is a modest goal that, with the help of this modest breakthrough, is at last non-immodestly achieved.

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