Fight Club and the IKEA Personality

By Jason Haggstrom, July 30, 2011

IKEA catalogEarlier this week, I received my first-ever IKEA catalog. At nearly 400 pages and about a half-inch thick, it's easily the largest piece of direct mail marketing I've ever seen show up at my house. There's been steady talk about the new store all year. Some simply marveled at the shear size of the building that was being erected. For those who have never seen an IKEA, try to imagine an immense, bright blue warehouse of a building with the enormous words "IKEA Home Furnishings" christened in bold yellow letters on all four sides of its exterior. It's kind of like the country of Sweden just planted a 415,000 square foot flag right next to the interstate. Some people buzzed about the new store constantly as though the appearance of a new brand in town promised to positively effect the quality of their lives. In fact, hundreds of people lined up several days ahead of its grand opening, not unlike the throng of Star Wars geeks who camped out for the premier of The Phantom Menace. Fight Club's Narrator, an unnamed, wispy shell of a man played by Edward Norton, would probably be there as well if he actually existed here in the real world. He'd be among his people. People who had become "a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct."

Spoilers Ahead:

  • Plot twist
  • Themes

Many have taken to referring to Fight Club's Narrator character as Jack because of the scene where he reads the anthropomorphic, first-person titles from a Readers Digest article about the human body: "I am Jack's raging bile duct," "I am Jack's colon." But this approach to naming the Narrator is decidedly wrongheaded. It is imperative that we recognize the Narrator as a man—no, a person—without identity. He's without friends or family, works a job he despises, and he sleeps so little that he fears he might die of insomnia. What he does have is an apartment overgrown with items from IKEA Home Furnishings. Things that take the place of relationships, laughter, and love.

Early in the film, director David Fincher employs CGI in brilliant fashion to show the Narrator's apartment being populated by IKEA one item at a time. It's also perhaps the most important scene in the entire film as it establishes the film's cynical take on consumer culture and the apathetic approach to life that it breeds. In an absurd display of multi-tasking skill, the film's Narrator sits on his toilet while perusing an IKEA catalog. A cordless telephone is lodged between his head and shoulder, allowing his hands the freedom to fawn over page after page of high-end photography of mid-grade furniture. He turns the catalog 90 degrees to take in a two-page spread—elegant legs and luscious arms comprised from materials more titillating than flesh and bone. The catalog is tossed to the floor, covering a dormant issue of Playboy. A photo of an empty room with the headline "Use Your IMAGINATION..." takes the dominant position in the frame. The shot dissolves into three-dimensional reality: a room that is slowly populated by furniture as the Narrator rattles off a list of each of his purchases ("The Klipsk personal office unit. The Hovetrekke home exerbike. Or the Johanneshov sofa with the Strinne green stripe pattern"). Each piece appears, complete with printed description and price as though the room were a virtual-reality representation of one of the catalog's spreads. Suddenly, the Narrator walks into the frame, illustrating the hallucinogenic structure of the diegesis that has been created by the Narrator's skewed view of reality. The film's thematic take on this sequence is hammered home by the Narrator's line at the end of the shot: "I'd flip through catalogs and wonder, 'what kind of dining set defines me as a person?'"

The film's Narrator character has come to identify so strongly with the IKEA brand that he has substituted its identity—the lifestyle promised by each double-page spread—for his own. It's "Personality by IKEA."

Now, there's a tendency when discussing Fight Club to focus on the film's deus ex machina. But if we are to understand the film's greatness as being primarily defined by this narrative twist, where does it get us? Such a reading would render the film only worthy of two viewings: one to be fooled, and another to discern how. The film's big twist—that the Narrator and Tyler Durden are actually one and the same—means nothing unless we make the bigger leap to recognize that Tyler is to the Narrator as IKEA, Apple, Starbucks, or any other brand you identify with is to you.

Bonnie L. Drewniany and A. Jerome Jewler define brand identity as a,

...strategically planned and purposeful presentation of itself to gain a positive image in the minds of the public. Basically, this is the company or brand's presentation of itself, including its name, logo, tag line, color pallette, architecture, and even sounds. So everything the brand presents to the public—everything people see and hear—is part of its identity. You could say that this is like a person: name, appearance, clothing style, and mannerisms make up someone's identity.1

IKEA catalog

Consider that metaphor about a brand being like a person. You're likely to remember Apple's marketing campaign where they turn that metaphor into literal personification by having the actor Justin Long state, "I'm a Mac." His rival in the commercials is, of course, the PC as played by John Hodgman. Drewniany and Jewler describe the campaign, and the way it portrayed the Apple brand:

Long is portrayed as laid-back, young, and cool, and Hodgman is portrayed as middle-aged, dated, and stodgy. Anyone who has ever experienced either type of computer knows Apple is making a statement about its computers: that they are simple to use, are protected from viruses, and will look great on any desktop. By using Long to portray these attributes—and an opposite person to portray the competition's negative attributes—Apple is reinforcing the personality of its brand.

Like Justin Long in those Apple commercials, Tyler Durden is the personification of a brand identity. A second, dominant personality created by the Narrator's id in order to fight back against apathy, loneliness, and depression, and to destroy the Narrator's comfort with having his identity defined by corprations such as IKEA. The brand's name is Fight Club, but it's logo is Tyler with his natural good looks and sculpted body. The color pallette is organic, but with violent reds (Tyler's jacket, blood), disturbing blue-purples (bruises), and baked yellow-oranges (Tyler's flesh). The brand's tagline is so fundamental in creating the false perception of exclusivity (and therefore individuality) that it's always said twice in quick succession: "You do not talk about Fight Club."

Bryant Simon described they way brands infiltrate our lives and become part of our identity when he wrote,

Buying, in the end, is a lot like voting. We choose the best option, given the information we have and the choices that are given to us. Candidates and companies craft their messages to meet our desires and wants—however, genuine or misguided. Reading them back, with the help of some outside sources, can then teach us a lot about who we are and what we care about the most.2

Tyler is everything the Narrator wishes he could be. As Tyler tells him, "I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not." The perceived reward of buying into the Fight Club brand is the reconstruction of identity beginning with the most basic trait of gendering. Fight Club makes this "generation of men raised by women" feel like men again. But unlike a typical brand, attendees of Fight Club pay not with cash, but with flesh and blood. When people attend Fight Club, they see its logo: the masculine, assertive, tough, ripped, and absolutely gorgeous Tyler Durden. To attend Fight Club is to buy into the idea that they too may one day be just like him. In their minds, when these men fight, they are Tyler Durden.

The Narrator's loyalty to and identification with corporate brands such as IKEA has been replaced by his loyalty to Fight Club, to Tyler, and to the primal, simplistic version of manhood that they represent. But Tyler is the ultimate hypocrite. He may talk of rejecting brand identification ("You are not your latte. You are not the car you drive."), but he's really just a brand himself: brand Fight Club with its goal of terrorism which requires the conformity of its members and the elimination of every trait that would identify them as individuals. Like his father before him, the Narrator (by way of Tyler) is simply "setting up franchises," none of which are built to create or sustain what the Narrator is really missing in life. Fight Club is simply another brand that contibuted to the Narrator's false sense of completeness. The goals of the corporation are furthered at the expense of his identity.

IKEA in Denver

IKEA catalogThe concept of Fight Club as a brand and consumable product was also cleverly conveyed through Fox Studio's brilliant marketing campaign. Just look at the initial posters for the film which featured nothing more than the film's iconic pink soap branded with the film's title. DVDs of the film came in packaging designed to look like a package encased in twine, the way a product might be wrapped in a store from yesteryear. In an industry that seems to be built around photos of floating heads instead of good design, it's a minor miracle that the people who conceptualized the materials for Fight Club were able to incorporate major thematic elements into their designs.

Notes:

  1. Source: Creative Strategy in Advertising, Ninth Edition.
  2. Source: "Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks." Social Education, May/June 2011.
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4 Comments

By Tiel Lundy on August 24, 2011 at 10:45 AM

I'm glad you observe the hypocrisy in Tyler's rejection of all things commercial. (Nice work pointing to the dialogue--Tyler's "setting up [Fight Club] franchises"--as well as the film's promotional materials!)

One thing I wonder about is the gendering of acquisitive capitalism. That is, the narrator can only become a "real man" by divesting himself of the (putatively) vacuous material culture of nice cars, silk ties in cornflower blue, Italian-made drinking glasses, bath towels in "loden"--in other words, everything that IKEA represents. Logically, then, all these things are aligned with the female realm. Do you think the film is suggesting that "real men" are just that because they are not women and they don't care about stupid things like bath towels? Or, would a more generous reading of the film be that it's also pointing out the hypocrisy of this kind of thinking?

By Jason Haggstrom on October 13, 2013 at 11:29 AM

I think we have to make a clear distinction between what the film is arguing and what the characters are arguing. It is Tyler who makes the suggestion (though his statements, his actions, and the very aesthetic of him) about how the Narrator's participation in acquisitive capitalism might be an expression of being gendered as female. Tyler talks about being in a "generation of men raised by women" and wonders aloud, in regards to Marla, if "another woman is the answer we really need."

But, of course, there are other references to the Narrator's femininity when Tyler is not present. The airport employee remarks that "It's airline policy not to imply ownership in the event of a dildo. We use the indefinite article: 'A dildo.' Never 'Your dildo.'" And when Marla appears in a bridesmaid's dress that she bought at a thrift store for $1, she tells the Narrator that, "You can borrow it sometime." But does any of this mean that the film is making a statement about "the gendering of acquisitive capitalism"? I don't think so.

For me, such references are entirely about how the Narrator feels about himself. They are his perspective, but not necessarily the film's. And, if we wanted to be generous, we could easily dig further into the details of Marla to find some counters to these ideas of what makes a female a female. Her only acquisition is the aforementioned $1 dress (unless we want to count the clothes that she steals and then dumps in order to make a quick buck), and she attends meetings intended for men as though she's either unaware or indifferent to her actual gender. But I also don't really believe that the film is trying very hard to point out the hypocrisy of Tyler's way (hence why so many viewers focus on the film's plot twist over its themes) or how the Narrator's fears of being gendered as female are entirely an internal creation.

One of the film's biggest weaknesses is that it glosses over its thematic outcomes. The viewer is left to extract meaning from a very chaotic ending that features the lead character shooting himself in the face, the death of an imaginary character, and a final shot of buildings imploding all around (can we even guarantee that the Narrator and Marla even survive this ending?). That last visual alone leaves the film with an apocalyptic tenor that puts an end to any additional thought about the "meaning" of the film. What most are left with, it would seem, is that the movie was enjoyable (or not) because of its violence, the homoeroticism of its beautiful male bodies, its hyperkinetic style, and (of course) its jaw-dropping plot twist. Men seem to love it, and a lot of women don't. While I don't think that the film is attempting to make a case that the male or female genders should be defined in such a crude, simplistic fashion, it certainly appears that it has been largely interpreted as though it is. And that—my admiration for the film aside—is extremely problematic.

By Serge on October 14, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Good points. Is the ending, where Tyler is finally vanquished and the two personalities become integrated, at last an escape from brand identification?

By Jason Haggstrom on October 20, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Tyler was a creation of the Narrator's subconscious. He existed as a counter to the Narrator's depressed state, missing personality, and self-hatred (or, at least, apathy towards self). Tyler called the Narrator out on his bullshit, specifically his creation of self through corporate brands.

When the Narrator shoots himself at the end of the film, I don't see it as an integration of the two personalities so much as the Narrator choosing to take back control of his life and start making decisions about the direction of his life again by way of eliminating Tyler. It is an escape from brand identification, but at that point the brand the Narrator is escaping from is brand Tyler, and the pressure to be a "man" in the way that Tyler and Fight Club defined. He'd already given up all the other brands that were defining him (beginning with the destruction of his apartment), and the film's conclusion is where he finally realizes that what he needs to do is accept himself as himself, and to expose himself to feeling (and the risk of possibly losing) love.

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