A funny thing happened to IKEA’s image at yesterday’s shambolic public relations disaster

If you don’t like long moans about incompetent ad agencies, PR people and IKEA, progress no further, gentle reader.

The words “piss-up”, “brewery”, “a”, “organise”, “couldn’t” and “in” spring to mind.

I am not going to name the top-notch comedy warm-up man and four excellent featured stand-ups who were employed to make IKEA’s next TV commercial yesterday, because it would be counter-productive to link their names to this shambolic PR disaster for the normally stylish and efficient Swedish company.

I got invited to be in the audience because a friend and I both have IKEA “Family Cards” despite having no family (look – it gives discounts and I am a Scot brought up among Jews).

The promise was a “live stand-up comedy TV production… The fun starts at 1.30pm… There’ll be plenty of refreshments and breaks provided, plus entertainment while you’re waiting for the filming of our TV ad to start.” It would last from 1.30pm to 6.00pm.

Bear in mind, dear reader, the phrase “plenty of refreshments and breaks provided”. We will return to this. It is up there high in the ranks of hype along with that jolly interview in which Colonel Gaddafi said that all his people loved him, anyone who didn’t love him was on hallucinogenic drugs jointly provided by the Americans & Osama bin Laden and no-one had demonstrated against him anywhere in Libya.

The IKEA fiasco started badly. There was supposed to be an audience of 250 or 300 (the publicity seemed uncertain which).

Instead, at 1.30pm, waiting in the icy cold outside the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, was a queue of under 30. There was no-one from the production team to be spotted anywhere. Eventually, someone left the freezing queue outside the Riverside Studios and, with trouble, found a couple of people inside the building. They told her they had no idea when it would start but the crew were “about to go to” lunch.

At 1.45pm, freezing, after someone else had asked, the audience was taken inside the building to stand for another 20 minutes in a line by the open-plan restaurant, watching the cast and crew eating their hot lunch. About 15 minutes into this 20-minute wait, an Australian came along asking everyone to sign ‘release forms’ (no explanation of what they were – yes, I do know).

Then, at 2.05pm, it was into the studio to… yes… wait another 25 minutes while the crew finished their lunch and drinks and, by 2.45, things had been got-together enough to start… ish.

We should have known there would be a problem when the warm-up music for this family-centred comedy ad included the punk anthem “No Future” and the Australian with no microphone inaudibly explained what was going to happen to the bemused audience while loud music continued to play, drowning his words out.

At this point, I just sat back and wrote everything down, secure in the comfort that the ad agency ‘organising’ this destruction of IKEA’s public image to its loyal Family Card members was so incompetent and so unused to staging live shows to a live audience that comedy gold could only follow – entertaining for me, though annoying for the until-then IKEA-loving but now freezing and starving audience. Yup, only around 30 of them, but word of mouth is a powerful thing.

Sure enough, having employed four good comics whose daily professional job is to create situations in which audiences laugh uproariously, the show started with the four hapless comics standing in the background on the IKEA comedy set like enforced lemons while the French floor manager stood in front of them and told the audience to “laugh” unmotivated while cameras shot reactions. Sitting there, cold – both in showbiz terms and in temperature – the audience was instructed to give belly-laughs, laugh louder etc etc. Someone sitting near me said: “Maybe they think we all went to drama school.”

The ad agency had employed an experienced and excellent warm-up man (a comedian whose London circuit work and hour-long Edinburgh Fringe shows I have seen – he’s top notch). He was not, of course, used in this surreal show-starting scenario of asking the audience to laugh at nothing. The French floor manager just stood there and told people to laugh.

Lack of direction was what characterised the entire afternoon.

During the long hours ahead the warm-up man succeeded in the near-impossible task of keeping the audience responsive and the four on-set comedians did sterling work in getting audience laughs from a misconceived sexist cliché of an idea with some occasionally godawful lines.

The ramshackle concept was to mix straight-to-audience stand-up with the TV series Friends in an IKEA-built set under a large neon sign saying MAKE STORAGE NOT WAR. The misconceived and yawningly old-fashioned premise was to look at Which sex is messier at home – the guys or the girls? The gags, I think, were partly supplied by the four comedians but also, with fatal consequences, obviously also partly written by some faceless ad agency copywriter who thought he knew what jokes are. Well, OK, maybe not faceless. I’m guessing it was the young guy skulking around in the Ayatollah-like beard.

The comics tried their best with some occasionally deadly lines. The famous laughing automaton on Blackpool Pleasure Beach would have had difficulty laughing but the audience were pros. Or, at least, they did their best to pretend they had been to drama school.

The ad agency seem to have assumed they could get steady laughs over four hours from an audience for the same series of jokes repeated perhaps (I’m guessing) seven times over that four hours. The audience tried their best but it’s hard, at best, to laugh convincingly at a joke when its repeated twice or three times. The ad agency should have put together an audience from members of the Alzheimer’s Society.

Though the one thing even an Alzheimer’s audience would not have forgotten was the key phrase in the e-mails they got: “plenty of refreshments and breaks provided”.

See? I told you to remember this.

It is a key phrase because some of the audience members I talked to had left home at 11.30am to get to Riverside Studios in Hammersmith at 1.30pm, then wait until 2.45pm (with no refreshments) until the show started.

During the recording, which ended at 6.00pm, there was one break in which the audience discovered the phrase “plenty of refreshments” involved around ten apples and ten pears plus Twinings Tea, Nescafe Coffee and an unknown brand of milk. What would have happened if the expected 250-300 punters had turned up I don’t know. Perhaps the ad agency used its fee from IKEA to have Jesus on standby with loaves and fishes.

My reason for mentioning Twinings and Nescafe by name is that these are not products on sale in IKEA, so they were presumably bought by the advertising agency. The irony is that IKEA sells and provides very cheap good food and drink and would presumably have given free food and drink to the ad agency to give to their IKEA “Family Card” members.

To be honest, there wasn’t just one break, there were two. On the second one, the break in which the audience was told to go eat, drink and wee in the toilets was interrupted after three minutes (I timed it) and the audience urgently called back to their seats (abandoning half-drunk cups and apples with one bite taken out of them) “to line up cameras”. They were then not needed for 17 minutes during which time, for a brief period, all four comics were visibly eating and drinking on set in front of the seated, unfed and unwatered audience. (Not the comics’ fault; they didn’t know the audience wasn’t being given food, but the production crew should have seen and twigged what was happening.)

The whole somnambulistic shambles came to an end just before 6.00pm with increasing audience grumbling around me about not being given any of the promised food. One person said to me, “At least a ham sandwich would have been something. They are all getting paid and had food. We get paid nothing, we have to perform and we get starved for four hours.”

Despite an out-of-control production, the comics and the warm up man succeeded in the amazing, near impossible task of keeping the audience on-side and responsive for four hours. With good editing, there was more than enough material shot yesterday to create maybe five good 20-second commercials. I will be interested to see the uproarious final comic ads with the roaring audience reactions (‘sweetened’ in the sound edit suite) and happy audience faces.

The agency behind yesterday’s farrago was Mother Advertising.

They were certainly being thought of as a bunch of mothers by the IKEA Family Card-carrying audience members I was sitting among.

Except, of course, that’s not true. I thought that myself.

Ordinary punters did not think the shambles was mis-organised by an ad agency and presumably had not, as I had, checked on the release form they signed at the beginning of the afternoon to see who the ‘producers’ were. They saw it as an afternoon organised by IKEA.

So, yesterday afternoon, IKEA’s reputation was tarnished to around 30 of its most loyal customers and, as I say, word of mouth is a powerful thing.

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There are later blogs by me on this subject, including this one about the audience. You might also want to follow me on Twitter  – @thejohnfleming – or Facebook.

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9 Comments

Filed under Ad industry, PR, Television

9 responses to “A funny thing happened to IKEA’s image at yesterday’s shambolic public relations disaster

  1. I almost wish I had been there. I’d have been furiously making notes myself. You do suffer for your art don’t you John?

  2. I think this is the advert:

    (hat-tip to @JaneHill64 & @SaliWho on that there t’witter).

  3. I saw this for the first time yesterday. I wasn’t impressed.

    Great article John. Bonus points for the use of “somnambulistic”.

  4. Wendy

    Ok, I am fully aware of the offensively incompetent approach of the media to everything from “real people” to “talent”. However, the part of your story that remains mind boggling is: If the audience really felt abused by such bollocks, then surely they would go home? But they didn’t. I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks they are a victim when they CHOOSE to stick around at a crap cheap ad event is an a**e who deserves everything they get (or, indeed, don’t).

    It’s simple, these agencies behave this way – BECAUSE THEY CAN. It’s up to you – and everyone else – to walk away. If you don’t, YOU”RE the arse. Thank You.

  5. Drew

    When people with little or no prior experience of such events agree to take part they generally see it through, rather than stomping out like a prima donna the moment expectations are not met. I think it’s quite different for a professional/performer who can judge and state that “it’s just not good enough”. Besides, if you’re the only one to leave, ultimately you are the one who is likely to look like the “a**e”.

    I think it’s only once you reach the end of an experience like this that you can fully judge it. In this case I’m sure retrospectively everyone wished they had walked out early on, but then plenty of great concerts and TV recordings can start badly – leaving you waiting for ages, disappoint you with a dreadful support/warm-up act or technical problems but by the end very often all is forgotten in the balance of the overall experience.

    What if the second break had included the finest Ikea food (meatballs?) and an apology + explanation for what had gone wrong earlier in the day? Or vouchers at the end of the afternoon? This posting would have been a lot less engaging if it had simply stated “we were all standing outside in the cold and nobody knew what was going on, so I left and don’t know what happened subsequently”. I’m glad you posted such a full account, John.

    Some agencies really do seem to treat the public like cattle or props. While living abroad I was told that a local agency needed a “native English speaker” for a single line in an advert and went along on the audition day to find a huge queue of locals – some of whom couldn’t even speak English but were giving the line a go – and not one of the production staff could speak English.

    For the audition they just walked along the line with a camcorder and each person said their name and the phrase with their varying accents – most sounded like they were doing impressions of Hollywood movie lines.

    When it got to me they asked me to repeat my name and then spell it out twice. They told me I didn’t sound like “an American” and that was it.

    I’m so pleased I hadn’t walked out before they had the chance to say that, but that was definitely time to flounce out 🙂

  6. This is shockingly bad planning on behalf of Mother.

    Given you are in the Ikea loyalty scheme, I think a stern letter off to Ikea HQ is in order. Would be very surprised if the agency don’t get their arse kicked / you get a handy voucher given the massive let down…

  7. In that case, I’m afraid you will have to stay very surprised…

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