Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Reviews IKEA in German. Working with clichés

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Issue 1, 2013, 44-46 pp
Published on balticworlds.com on maj 17, 2013

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Jennie Mazur has entered a fascinating, alluring, but at the same time seductive field of research: a field, indeed, in which one can easily get into trouble. In saying this, I refer to those traps we can fall into when we compare national cultures. A Swede writes about a “Swedish” theme in the German language, a theme that is ubiquitous — the Opel commercial in Germany that is still running at present sounds like one from IKEA: “We live cars”; everyone will understand the allusion. These days people are amused by the new 2013 IKEA catalogue, in which a lamp, which in fact is more like a chandelier, is extolled for its various features. The company gave it the name “Söder” — in Germany, of course, hardly anyone knows that’s the Swedish word for South; Germans would more likely recognize it as the name of the current Bavarian finance minister, who feels himself called to the highest of high offices, contrary to the wishes of the public.

The project belongs in the closed loop of the Ego-, Alter-, and Aliusculture — both this investigation and IKEA’s marketing strategies themselves: they both deal with what we have absorbed, through social and cultural images, from constructions of the Self and the Other. We believe in defined identities. We accept inherited conventions as genetic, as biological truths.

We commend the author for having risked entering this field; it speaks to her courage, maybe her boldness — I do not want to say that daring plays a role here, for her analysis of IKEA’s advertising strategy in Germany is all too convincing and also too scholarly for that. In other words, you do not get bored while reading her work and creativity plays its part: these are good, and essential, prerequisites for successful scholarship. But you have to know in advance that this work does not belong to the mainstream of Swedish German studies: the thesis cannot be attributed to a Swedish tradition in the humanities, either in its methodology or in its content, not even in relation to its theme.

When I look at the list of Swedish German studies dissertations during the last few years, I rarely, in fact never, find a dissertation that could compete with Jennie Mazur’s work, whether in its method, its theory, or even its content.

The article is written in German, but it is not really a German academic treatise. The author uses a relaxed style, a writing style that is not precisely academic in the traditional, let alone Teutonic sense. I see that as an advantage, with the crucial prerequisite that the language is appropriate for the subject and that it has differentiated depths. One can say this about her prose: it is simple, it is occasionally flat when she is talking about the simple and flat plots of the little IKEA films; however, it becomes differentiated and abstract when she evaluates and analyzes what she has seen. This is the case in her chapters on culture and semiotics: when she reviews the research literature, her language, though still relaxed and flowing, becomes differentiated and abstract.

In a fairly long preface, the readers are acquainted with the subject of the investigation; the author recounts, in an offhand, ironic way, an IKEA commercial that is all too well known in Germany. It shows a few German stereotypes, with the critical aim of exploiting them by building them, in accordance with advertising psychology, into a contrasting Swedish sales strategy. I would like to delve a little deeper here, because quite clearly IKEA is working with German clichés. The author analyzes this; German seriousness and Swedish irony are set in opposition to each other.

In the Germany of IKEA, strange names are in circulation (for people and products): “Ewald” and “Rosalinda”, for example. These names are so unusual and so rarely used that they seem to me to be a witty way of showing distance rather than irony. That is not a rebuttal of the arguments laid out here, but rather suggests how over-the-top the IKEA strategy is.

And the supposedly classic “German” living room with its heavy oak furniture seems to me to miss the German reality of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries so completely that, at first glance, I would have my doubts about the benefits of sales psychology. In the living rooms of the German lower and lower-middle classes — and hence of potential IKEA customers — there is no such furniture. This view comes 100 years too late.

The IKEA clientele is distinguished above all by — apart from its low budget — a certain youthfulness, with the attitude to life that goes along with it. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and (somewhat later) ABBA, Sjöwall/Wahlöö — but above all, the protest against the entrenched, to a considerable extent political and habitual rituals of the “older generation” were part of this attitude towards life when IKEA came to Germany at the beginning of the 1970s; to this extent, IKEA in Germany should also be interpreted as part of the rebellion against parents. We hear again and again that it is because of the protest by Helmut Schmidt that the cult shelving unit “Billy,” which was produced from 1974 until 1991, appeared on the market again two years later (“Without Billy you won’t get rid of your pine junk!”). Since then, “Billyfizierung” (“Billyfying”) has become a familiar term.

The first part of the monograph is of solid scholarly quality: the research question is introduced, we are led to the theoretical starting point, and, perhaps most importantly, an overview of the previous research on IKEA, and the cultural-semiotic interpretation of images of ourselves and of others are provided. A longish first chapter is devoted to discussion and the thematic rationale for studying IKEA commercials. In these brief thirty pages, Jennie Mazur takes a good look at the mechanisms of advertising; she rightly emphasizes that advertising has become a distinct and recognized form of culture and art: advertising has become part of our everyday communication. The actual purpose of advertising, to attract people to buy something, has long been complemented, at times transcended, even completely supplanted by its function as entertainment and culture vehicle. The tension created by these multiple functions of advertising is what attracts scholarly examination, but it brings with it great risks when companies transfer national cultural conventions, even those specific to their own country, to other settings. When a Swedish company advertises its products in Germany, or an American company advertises its goods in France, then the limits of understanding and especially of acceptance are soon reached. One example of this is the names of products — a product’s name does not always have to attract buyers by using words outside their own language. (One example of this is “Söder”; another is that Danish people feel insulted because doormats and carpets have, without exception, been given Danish names.

Nonetheless, as we learn from this work, advertising is not static, even in the case of a worldwide company that over many years has become accustomed to success. While the “German” IKEA advertising campaign began in 1974 with the national branding slogan “The impossible furniture store from Sweden” (Das unmögliche Möbelhaus aus Schweden), since the 1980s a new tagline has been created almost every two years. The most successful has been an aphorism in Germany for funny situations since 2002 which, completely separate from IKEA, has its own existence in colloquial language: “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?” — which plays on the two different meanings of “live”: “Are you still just living somewhere?” or “Are you alive (do you feel alive yet)?”

Another chapter, one that I would consider to be actually the theoretical one, is about the concept of culture: culture cannot be defined, and equally, we cannot live without it. It is like “time” or “identity” — we are clearly dealing with everyday concepts that come up in our everyday reality without further definition, but we cannot truly grasp their meaning. Jennie Mazur avoids the problem adroitly by pointing to relevant authorities, beginning with the classics of semiotics and linguistic definition of signs: “Signs define the world we live in”; a sign is the correlation between expression and content, and this brings us to the heart of culture, for expression and content can be modified within a given culture. Then the author differentiates between everyday culture and culture in research; she has expressed her understanding of culture with the quote from Malinowski that she has set as the slogan for her study: culture “as the widest context of human behavior” — where the emphasis on behavior is at best annoying, for culture is also the expression of a way of thinking and of political self-image; political culture is more than political behavior. How can it be otherwise — and the author does not attempt to solve this puzzle — that in German there is a Kulturbeutel (a culture bundle), in English simply a toilet bag, in French a trousse de toilette, in Spanish el neceser? In the language of semiotics, culture is (and I quote) “collective knowledge, system of signs, order, structure”. Thus, in reality, culture extends far beyond “behavior”. This is in reality the essential prerequisite for being able to investigate the IKEA commercials in terms of an analysis of semiotic culture.

The genesis and constructions of the respective national cultures are of central importance for an examination of this sort: we have already recently learned that Scandinavians’ image of Scandinavia has been significantly influenced by the German image of the North: the Germans had constructed their ideal picture of an idyllic North and had taken it to Scandinavia, where it became established as their own image. If I translate that correctly into semiotic language, over decades the German Alter-culture of Scandinavia became the Swedish Ego-culture. To that extent, Sweden sells Germans their own original image of Sweden, the German Alter-culture as Swedish Ego-culture: this is the company’s “Swedish solution” — which can function so successfully only in Germany. The two-way paths of image and identity construction are thus not only of the immaterial world but are also entirely tangible, economic ones.

Der Spiegel puts together this list of stereotypes from 1969:

“Drugs and pornography, prisons without doors and girls without morals, boredom and short skirts, hot love and cool people — that is the average German’s image of Sweden.”

Stereotypes like this always have a funny, lighthearted side; they make it possible for us to see that they can change: the “Swedish film”, which came into fashion in the 1950s as an umbrella term for films considered pornographic, had a quite different connotation in the 1930s — it meant the filmic depiction of nature! “Swedish film” stood for “nature film”, or, as the case may be, scenes that took place in free, primordial nature.

The “Swedish solution” — the description, deciphering, and evaluation of five IKEA commercials — is the climax of the dissertation; the author gives them each their own title: “Frankenstein”, “Knut”, “Froschkönig der Mittsommerzeit”, “Eine gewaltige Gardenparty”, and “Neuheiten bei Oma”. She examines the commercials minutely, describing the techniques and the content. Her summary, “The Swedish Solution”, is an “IKEA solution”; it has as much to do with Sweden as the Germans permit — and that is a lot! IKEA has cult status for its southern neighbors with a construction of Swedishness that no doubt is entrenched in a good part of Germany.

But what is happening with IKEA in France, in Russia, in England? As far as furniture is concerned, IKEA has at least managed to modernize the German living room — if it were to manage that in Russia, too, that would also be a cultural revolution. At the same time, however, we must remember that the sorcerer’s apprentices from time to time have the upper hand and can no longer be put back behind bars, or, as Helmut Schmidt put it: If “Billy” does not return, you will be stuck with all your pine junk. The wit and irony that has fascinated the Germans for nearly 40 years is not a Swedish specialty; Swedes are just as serious and humorless as the Germans — nevertheless, we would really like to believe that they are not.

Jennie Mazur’s Die “schwedische” Lösung provides a good example of a scholarly critical investigation of Self- and Other-images in terms of culture. In connection with the use of concepts such as highlight or headline, we should return to the term “icons”, in this case “iconic films”. Aby Warburg’s treatment of popular-culture techniques and nomenclature could also be of use in this connection and would complete the semiotic analyses. On the basis of a large amount of evidence, the dissertation illuminates just how ubiquitous the heterostereotypical and autostereotypical constructions of the National — or of what is considered the National — have become. It has long been known in the context of national product branding that making money is not the only thing that can be done with these constructions; this study demonstrates that a lot of money can be made.≈

+ Jennie Mazur, Die “schwedische” Lösung: Eine kultursemiotisch orientierte Untersuchung der audiovisuellen Werbespots von IKEA in Deutschland, Würzburg, 2013, 293 pages