We went to IKEA yesterday. As well as a carful of storage solutions, the trip provided a great opportunity to examine how the Swedish furniture giant encourages people to spend.
I’m old enough to remember when Ikea first opened up in Britain, and completely changed the context in which we did our furniture shopping by using a new metaphor to change the context of the transaction.
Previously, people had bought new furniture to last a lifetime, usually in a “private consultation” with an expert sales assistant, after doing lots of research. It was a bit like the way new cars are sold nowadays.
Ikea changed the frame and made furniture shopping like going to the supermarket. People were piling trolleys high with colourful impulse purchases.
It’s a great example of how metaphor can be used to control the frame, the context, of an interaction.
A metaphor is a feature of language in which one kind of thing is compared to to another kind of thing. At a simple level, you can often spot one by noticing the words “it’s like…”
However, it’s increasingly being realised that metaphor is not just a feature of language – it’s a feature of the way our minds work, often outside our conscious awareness. We’re constantly comparing one kind of thing to another kind of thing, and the results of this spill out in our language. Research suggests we use about six metaphors a minute in ordinary spoken English!
In other words, metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind. And it’s the unconscious mind which usually makes our most important decisions, including buying decisions – it’s an “elephant” carrying the conscious “rider” along with it.
So when a big retailer like Ikea wants to encourage us to buy lots of stuff, it uses metaphor to influence our “elephants”.
But it doesn’t use metaphoric language to achieve this. Instead, it uses store layout, equipment, colours, ceiling height and other “tricks” to set up the metaphor in much more subtle ways. (There’s a lot more I could write about how they do this, but I’ll save that for another blog.)
Our “riders” don’t notice these details: perhaps they’re distracted by the written metaphors busily emphasising the store’s “family values”.
But our “elephants” automatically pick up on the overall “supermarket” metaphor and go along with the herd, filling our trolleys with many more items than we planned.
Finally, at the checkout comes the reckoning. The conscious “rider”, who has been carried along in the charge, is surprised and shocked by the bill…
NOTE: “Six metaphors per minute” reference: Raymond W. Gibbs Jr., ‘Categorization and metaphor understanding’. Psychological Review 99, (3): 572-577, 1992.