The Spike Jonze ad that almost makes IKEA cool.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 23 2002 12:16 PM

I Like Spike

The Spike Jonze ad that almost makes IKEA cool.

Like most ad-watchers in the real world, I'm generally not that interested in who directed a particular commercial. But one director whose commercial work does interest me is Spike Jonze. Jonze has made his mark with justly celebrated music videos (like Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," starring Christopher Walken), as the director of Being John Malkovich, and even as an actor in Three Kings. But he still does ads, including one of my favorite commercials in recent memory, a Levi's spot that I wrote about two years ago. The point is, when I heard that Jonze was doing an ad for IKEA, I was interested—and I was not let down. Because I'll essentially be ruining the ad for you in writing about it, I encourage you to take a look before going further: To see the spot, go to www.unboring.com (if you're at work, mute your computer; the site comes up with music) and click on the picture of the TV set.

An unlikely star gets no sympathy
An unlikely star gets no sympathy

The ad: In its online version, at least, it's a pretty long spot. A woman in a rather IKEA-looking apartment unplugs a little red lamp. She hauls it outside, where the weather is windy and wintry, and leaves it on the sidewalk, with the trash, as pitiful music plays. The lamp looks oddly human. As it starts to rain, the lamp seems sad and pitiful, particularly because we can see the woman in her warm apartment above, enjoying the company of a new lamp. This goes on for a while. Eventually you want to weep. Right then a man appears out of the darkness and addresses the camera in a silly-sounding Nordic accent. "Many of you feel bad for this lamp," he says, as the rain soaks him. "That is because you're crazy. It has no feelings! And the new one is much better." He departs. The ad ends with the IKEA logo.

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Style counsel: Once again, Jonze has crafted something that stands out. As with many good ads, you'd want to watch it even if it weren't an ad at all. It looks great, it draws you in and creates a certain suspense from the beginning, and it ends with a surprise that's both funny and vaguely unnerving.

But it is an ad. And to its credit, it achieves its effect without simply ignoring the thing that's being advertised (a surprisingly common strategy). Without that brand-new IKEA lamp shining in the window, the little narrative would fail; so you can't help but focus on the merchandise, even if you're not exactly sure why you're doing it. More broadly, IKEA seems to be trying to attach itself to the notion of non-boringness (or "unböring," as the one-word, complete-with-goofy-umlaut slogan has it), and certainly the feel of the spot helps: IKEA comes across as almost avant-garde.

The one questionable element of the ad is the amount of attention focused on the red lamp being discarded. The lamp works just fine and looks like a perfectly decent lamp. Trashing it is an act of pure and conspicuous waste, which we are prodded to laugh off as we embrace the idea that waste is not just OK but flat-out cool if the new thing is "better." Period. You could argue that IKEA thus associates itself not just with the useless cluttering of landfill, but with a certain slavery to trend-following.

Then again, the actual spot is so loopy that it seems misguided to subject it to such a weighty charge. And let's face it, the target here, the likely IKEA customers, couldn't care less about being tagged conspicuous consumers. In a funny way, that strange man in the rain is saying exactly what they wished someone would say—they just didn't know it until they heard the words. Where Jonze himself might come down on that subject is impossible to say, but his feel for his audience seems just about pitch-perfect. And in advertising, that's what counts.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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