As the January sales kicked in before Christmas, you might already be fed up of furniture stores sending you exclusive invites to buy a brand new sofa at a rock-bottom price. But pause for a moment before you bin the next brochure. There’s something sinister going on in the sofa trade – they are putting around the idea that people can relax on sofas. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Marketing strategies are multi- layered, ranging from promotions in the shop to television commercials, local and national paper adverts, the inevitable mail drops and, yes, you guessed it, armchair shopping on websites. The remarkable thing is that marketing teams can make something as dull as a sofa appeal even to the under-25s, who really ought to have something better to spend their time and money on. Last year’s “sexy sofas” campaign by DFS is a case in point. In true postmodern style, it shows that you can choose who you want to be. Why not be a sophisticate on a Viscount (that’s the name of the sofa) or plain slutty on a Sutton? Or you might contemplate a blue velvet three-seater Apollo, on which a listless, bare-chested god with tousled hair lay, a copy of Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin falling to his side. Set in a minimalist glass, tile and steel apartment with mandatory polished wooden floor, this environment seems too clinical for the rigours of sexual adventure. But as the brochure put it: “At DFS they think of everything, so even if you turn into a wild cat and bring your prey home, don’t worry, the plain fabric is completely removable and washable.”
Advertisements reveal more than they show. Tanned late- middle-aged couples with their feet up on recliners are a picture of health and happiness. They offer each other cheesy smiles as they take a moment from the Daily Mail crossword. Young mums inhabit immaculate living rooms with cut flowers and bowls of summer fruit that the children have yet to plunder. The singles are sexy, slim and rich; they live in expansive open-plan apartments. They are having fun. They are getting on with their lives.
In reality, for younger buyers, home-centredness is an expensive business, because the sofa on its own just won’t do. There’s the stencilling, the professional kitchenware and the laminated floor to think about, too. They have to run faster to relax.
The single woman who lives on a diet of pasta and pesto while watching soaps during her occasional stop-offs at home is in a special category of her own. Labour targeted her with its pre- election billboard campaign launched just before Christmas. The hoardings pictured a young woman in her dressing gown on a sofa, with her hair in a towel wrap. Against a backdrop of poppy-red painted wallpaper and flat-pack pine shelves, she is eating Marmite on toast while catching the end of the news before Emmerdale. Raising her eyes thoughtfully into the middle distance, she thinks: “I’m responsible for the lowest inflation for over 30 years.”
Inflationary spirals are not at the top of young people’s political concerns. For a start, the under-25s have probably never experienced inflation. And if they do think about it, they might even like the idea, believing that it will lower the proportion of their income spent on credit. Challenging political apathy and getting people off their sofas is not going to be easy. Younger single women are showing signs of resentment towards married mums of the same age getting what they see as extra state benefits, special treatment at work, or getting away with working part-time. They voted Labour at the last election, when they were fresh from college, before the student loan repayments kicked in – and long before the repayment holiday on the new sofa was over. Getting young women and men to vote at all, this time, is going to be a challenge.
Labour could not use a man for the campaign because, on the whole, men look wrong in sofa ads. Tame, self-satisfied men look too contented, while rugged types threaten to overpower women with their embrace. Ads for techno-sofas are the exception. For example, Conroy’s exclusive US import, the gargantuan leather Bogart, promises a “double wall-friendly recliner action with hidden centre cushion to reveal a hands-free telephone, modem point and twin motor massage units”. All yours for only £42.50 a month. Oddly, unlike every other sofa in the catalogue, it doesn’t say how much it costs in total.
The Bogart’s driver is making notes while he is on the phone. That’s the general rule: men in sofa adverts are multitaskers – some can read, drink coffee and talk to their wife. Why not be more realistic and put a real man on a sofa, such as Andy Capp or Homer Simpson? However, the absence of men is the key selling point – the sofa is a place where women can steal time, not share it.
What the ads promise married women is self-indulgence. Most companies choose to feature women sipping mugs of coffee or taking a break with a magazine, or they suggest an active life by showing a model resting after a workout, dressed in sports gear and with a glucose energy drink by her side.
But can women enjoy their moment of peace? For years, women have been tormented with ancient jokes about putting their feet up and listening to Jimmy Young on the radio. Perhaps this is why wives and mothers show that “some of us have work to do” by vacuuming around the sofa on a Saturday afternoon while Dad and the kids are trying to watch Football Focus.
If a woman wants absolute independence, why not choose a chaise longue and recline in splendid isolation like an independent young thing in the roaring Twenties – waving away the men with her lit cigarette in a slender ebony holder? For a start, to afford such a luxury in a smallish family home would be indecent; moreover, the chaise longue, like its cousin, the couch, carries the burden of sin.
The couch is favoured by therapists to recover sins from the unconscious, by prostitutes who drape themselves in alluring lingerie in foreign shop windows, or by powerful men who insist that starlets stage their first performance on the casting couch. But even the sofa has its moments: teenage snogging on the sofa while babysitting is a national institution.
It is not surprising that manufacturers use the term sofa. It is a warm and welcoming word that originates from the east to describe a moveable set of cushions set out on a dais. The great British settee is related instead to the cheerless settle, a hard wooden straight-backed bench. Puritans and modernists alike have spurned intimacy and favoured discomfort – suggesting that furniture has a part to play in social control.
Hepplewhite’s 18th-century settees are an example: they resemble three chairs joined together at the hip, and were designed to discourage “careless ease”. They provided a place to wait, rather than relax. And that is precisely what young women from the propertied classes did – as illustrated by Jane Austen’s Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice, sitting in a row as they received morning calls and, quite literally, waited for a husband to come along.
Middle-class Victorian men liked their sumptuous sofas, but still expected women to know their place. Charles Darwin, prior to his wedding to Emma in 1839, wrote that his future wife’s role was to “humanise the brute, care for him, take charge of the sofa”. Even as recently as the 1960s, it was common for advertisements to show men affecting magisterial postures, with an adoring wife sitting prettily on the floor, an arm draped over his knee.
Darwin fancied the idea of having a “nice wife on a sofa”, but what would he make of young single women now that they have the wherewithal to buy their own sofa and can choose not to have a husband on theirs? Large successful companies bend to the public’s mood. The biggest hitter in the sofa trade, DFS, has declared profits of £46m – 79 per cent up on 1999. It shifts 25,000 products a week, and turnover is up by 19 per cent. For the photo in the annual report, the smiling directors lined up on a custom-built white leather six-seater sofa. And smile they should. Graham Kirkham, the founder and executive chairman, and his wife could expect to gain £5.5m in ordinary share dividends alone.
Perhaps Labour should bend to the young singles, too – but only if it can work out what they want.
The writer teaches sociology at the University of Teesside