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Ikea, the hot Scandinavian-furniture retailer, raised eyebrows when it started running what is believed to be the first mainstream TV spot to feature a gay couple prominently.

The commercial reaped attention, but others within Ikea's standout "life stages" campaign are winning awareness-spots featuring parents with two boys who introduce a third son, who's adopted; a newly divorced mother who wants nice furniture so "that I can have guys over maybe in, like, 10 years."

The reality-based campaign from Deutsch, New York, is raising more than eyebrows. Sales are 19% higher than one year ago across all Ikea U.S. markets.

The commercials "are honest, empathetic, warm and they are also very real. .*.*. They tap into human truth," says Peter Connolly, 37, director of marketing, Ikea U.S. East.

Research showed people usually buy furniture at a time of significant life change. That's why Ikea's spots, themed "It's a big country. Someone's got to furnish it," center on major events such as marriage, new jobs, divorce, having babies.

Mr. Connolly joined Ikea five years ago as general manager of the Elizabeth, N.J., store, and two years ago was named to his current position. He's responsible for advertising, PR, customer service, business development, visual store marketing and restaurant services for the retailer's seven East Coast stores.

Partly because of the advertising's success, Deutsch last summer was named to handle the retailer's entire $30 million account, replacing Stein Robaire Helm, Los Angeles, on the Ikea U.S. West portion.

"Most furniture retailers advertise product and price. That is what you see in their ads. We talk of fulfilling one's dream," Mr. Connolly says.

The advertising has positioned Ikea as ultrahip and helped trigger strong growth for the U.S. operation. The retailer entered the U.S. in 1986 and now operates 12 stores, with U.S. sales of more than $400 million.

And more stores are planned: One will open in Seattle later this year, and Mr. Connolly is scouting store locations in Chicago and Boston. A third store for the New York area also is planned.

Customer service, Mr. Connolly says, is key to Ikea's growth. To build customer loyalty, he's devising a database and is planning Ikea's first direct marketing campaign.

And Ikea's product keeps evolving, as the retailer adjusts to U.S. tastes. Just last year Ikea switched to American-sized bedding and linens from European sizes, for example, and it altered its sofa designs as well.

As Mr. Connolly notes, "Europeans like to sit on a sofa and we like to sit in a sofa."

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