In the near-400 years since his death, Shakespeare has become the most versatile writer who has ever lived, as his words, which were originally composed for plays and poems, have been adapted and used in virtually every other artistic medium. He has become a screenwriter, a librettist, a children’s author, a novelist and even an ad copywriter.
An advertisement for IKEA, a home furnishing company, uses Shakespeare’s words to sell its beds. The ad shows a woman falling from the sky, her fall broken by a series of beds that she lands upon, before she finally lands back in her own bed. There is no music, or any other sound, other than the words of Shakespeare. Her fall is accompanied by a soft female voice uttering one of Shakespeare’s most famous couplets, spoken by Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on/And our little lives are rounded with a sleep.”
The use of Shakespeare’s language in advertising is not new. From the start of the advertising industry in the late 19th century, his words (and his image) have been used to advertise everything from chocolate bars (in America, Gery chocolate sells matching “Romeo” and “Juliet” bars) to tobacco (a 1928 Marlboro ad shows Shakespeare smoking a pipe and informing the reader, “We in the theatrical profession prefer Marlboros”). Moreover, Shakespeare has been used not only to sell products but media, from “old” or classic media (such as radio stations that proudly proclaim, “If music be the food of love, play on”) to new media, including social media (such as Facebook, on which the “status” of “Juliet Capulet” is described as “in a relationship and it’s complicated”).
While the visually stunning IKEA’s bed advertisement is a remarkable example of modern CGI, (what once would have been the sole preserve of the most expensive Hollywood movie is now relatively affordable, and available for use in a humble TV spot), what is more enduring, is that Shakespeare’s words linger long in the memory, even after the images of the “falling woman” fade.
So why Shakespeare? The most obvious reason is that he is not just cheap but free. Shakespeare, of course, is out of copyright; in fact, he was never in copyright. Copyright laws as we understand them did not exist at the time that Shakespeare was writing (they were only introduced at the end of the 17th century), which is one of the major reasons why Shakespeare was so reluctant to publish his work during his lifetime. In the absence of a copyright law, he knew that if he had published his plays, another rival theater company in London could simply have bought copies and staged its own productions of his works. Of course, in the absence of authorised copies, a cottage industry of printers publishing “bad” (or incomplete) quartos sprang up. It was only after Shakespeare’s death that his best friends and fellow players, John Heminges and Henry Condell, gathered all his plays together and published them in one collected works, or “folio,” in an effort to preserve his plays for posterity. Without Heminges and Condell’s First Folio, as many as half of Shakespeare’s plays would not have survived at all.
Consequently, there is a certain irony in the use of Shakespeare’s words in such an obviously expensive advertising campaign as IKEA’s. Nearly half a millennium after his death, Shakespeare’s words are still being used by others (as they were used, or appropriated, by the printers of the “bad” quartos) without his receiving a penny for them.
Secondly, and more importantly, Shakespeare connotes quality. To use 21st century marketing-speak, Shakespeare is the ultimate one-man brand. His universally accepted status as the greatest writer who ever lived ensures that any quotation of, or association with, him and his words lends or bestows a certain gravitas. Woody Allen has called this “borrowed grandeur,” the process of associating your product (whatever it is and whatever its quality) with something else that is unquestionably great. (Woody himself has admitted to doing it frequently, by playing Bach or Mozart over what he felt were otherwise unremarkable scenes in his movies.)
However, the most important reason that Shakespeare’s words are used for adverts (even more than the fact that they don’t have to be paid for or that they create an immediate impression of quality) is that they are so good, indeed so perfect, and the IKEA ad demonstrates this beautifully.
Who has captured the similarity between our actual dreams and our strangely dream-like existence better than Shakespeare did in these two lines? We are indeed “such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” There is a longer version of the advert that uses the whole of Prospero’s speech from which these two lines are extracted, but it is not nearly as effective as the short version, which uses just this couplet (“such stuff as dreams are made on” (“made on”, not “of”: the “on” almost jolts the reader awake, as it interrupts the natural rhythm of the line) and our “little lives” (the use of the word “little” reminds us that, however big we suppose our lives to be, they are ultimately tiny in the grand scheme of things) are “rounded” (another perfect choice of word, implying or suggesting the process of “rounding up” or “rounding off,” whether it be of a number or a corner-edge) with a sleep).
It should also be borne in mind that, like any other great writer (or even great copywriter), Shakespeare usually comes up with a multiplicity of options. Although “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…” is probably ultimately the best choice for this advert, it would also have been possible to use other great lines such as, “To sleep/Perchance to dream” from Hamlet, or even my own personal favourite of Shakespeare’s many great descriptions of sleep (I imagine Shakespeare himself was a great snoozer, judging by his repeated and obviously heart-felt references to the art of sleep), “Sleep…the knitter-up of life’s unravelled sleeve,” from Macbeth, uttered by Macbeth himself after he has killed Duncan and consequently condemned himself to a life without sleep (an almost unimaginable horror, as any insomniac can testify).
The IKEA ad also says something else about Shakespeare that is probably unintentional. It unwittingly shows how Shakespeare often exposes the paucity of other writing, even (or perhaps especially) the most modern, up-to-date copywriting. That is because although only Shakespeare’s words are heard during the advert, other words are used in its pay-off line, or slogan, which is shown on screen: “There’s no bed like home.”
On seeing the advert for the first time, and on seeing it again repeatedly (it has been on heavy rotation on British TV), I was immediately struck by the sheer awfulness of that line. It is obviously a pun or play on the famous phrase, “There’s no place like home,” but the substitution of the word “bed” for the word “place” just does not work. The overall effect is to make one think that the line has been constructed by someone writing in “Swinglish” (some bizarre hybrid of Swedish and English, or rather like “Chinglish,” the hybrid of Chinese and English that is becoming increasingly common throughout much of Asia). And “Swinglish” just doesn’t compare with Shakespeare, on any level – not for rhythm, sense or poetry. For what it’s worth, a much simpler and better phrase would have been, “There’s no bed like your own.” That would have retained the comparison to the original phrase, “There’s no place like home,” but it would have been much more effective and poetic. I would love to know what IKEA paid for the phrase, “There’s no bed like home”: whatever it was, it was more than they paid Shakespeare for his words. The danger of quoting or invoking Shakespeare is on the one hand, you immediately access a kind of poetic grace, but on the other hand, you immediately run the risk of exposing – indeed, emphasising – the inadequacy of your own creative output by placing it alongside something so effortlessly superior. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” (and this ad is truly visually dreamy), but we can also be rudely awoken from our beautiful Shakespearean slumber by the crude, clumsy words of others who can only aspire to Shakespeare’s unique way with a phrase.