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Perspective: Sit Back and Relax

La-Z-Boy shifts from dude chair to mom's seat
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Long before the coinage of the term man cave—that realm in every house where dad reigns sovereign—the male dominion over the American home was manifest in a single piece of furniture: the La-Z-Boy recliner. Introduced in 1929 as “nature’s way of relaxing,” the first La-Z-Boy had been built from orange crates and sold as a porch chair—but men took to it immediately. In fact, it’s still hard to think of a product that better defines the domestic suburban good life than the all-in-one chair with the recumbent back and the tilt-up footrest. The recliner’s variations were endless (one looked like a car seat and came upholstered in mink), as were the slack-ass English marketing terms that sold them: the exclusive “Otto-Matic” footrest, the “Tranquillator” massage option. Silly? Yes, indeed. Effective? You bet. By the end of the 1970s, La-Z-Boy company revenues hit $152 million.

But even during the postwar years, social and demographic changes were afoot that would, in time, turn into a major marketing hurdle for the company. It’s one clearly illustrated in the 1974 and 2012 ads shown here, and it goes like this: When a furniture brand’s core product becomes a quintessentially guy thing, what happens when the primary furniture buyer turns into a woman?

In 1974, that didn’t seem to be a problem. Despite various attempts to make its recliners appealing to women, La-Z-Boy’s marketing focused on the lazy boys. Its long string of endorsers included Don Shula, Johnny Carson, Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) and the New York Jets’ No. 12 himself, Joe Namath—whose goofy grin and playfully chauvinist manners embodied the recliner’s core message: If a man’s home was his castle, this was his throne.

“The ad is brilliant—it just grabs you,” said Peter Madden, CEO of marketing agency AgileCat. “It underscores the message that you need to claim your territory, your space.” And so what if props like the champagne bucket and that leggy blond lady verged ever so slightly on sexism. Hey, lighten up, it’s just Broadway Joe having some fun. “He’s got that look in his eye,” Madden said. “Everybody’s in on the joke.”

They were. Trouble was, the laughter died down. By 1992, La-Z-Boy had diversified into building sofas and love seats under its American Home Collection and, more to the point, the American home had diversified too: Mom was making the major buying decisions. Enter Brooke Shields. Consumers old enough to remember Namath’s days in a football jersey also remember Shields at 15, informing a bug-eyed TV audience that nothing came between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. But these days, Shields is a 47-year-old mother of two. As La-Z-Boy CMO Doug Collier told The New York Times, the former model is “a perfect partner for today’s age.”

And the man is right. But that doesn’t necessarily make the 2012 ad a touchdown. “I applaud the intent and agree from a strategy standpoint that it’s time for La-Z-Boy to evolve,” Madden said. “But I don’t see her having the juice to make the difference.” Shields, he said, is too “safe,” too “vanilla.”

And, tacky as the ‘74 ad might be, few would apply those modifiers to good old Joe, whose wise-ass grin still manages to charm, lo these 38 years later. Madden’s analogy to clarify the difference between the two ads: “If Namath is a Philly cheesesteak,” he said, “Brooke is an overdone filet.”