Perspective: Floor Show

Everybody in America knows what a carpet is--so why do marketers keep choosing confusing ways to advertise it?

Americans began to cover floors with carpeting in 1791 after the country's first carpet mill opened in Philadelphia. And while the category has undergone its trends (exotic imports, cut-loop piling) and technical advances (polypropylene fiber, stain-resistant coatings), one thing has remained a constant: Carpeting is a straight sell. As Damian Totman, founder and creative director for Exit Creative Company in New York, suggests: "Most humans are very familiar with floor coverings so don't look for a deeper meaning or associations–just tell your story, visually and simply."

Alas, if only carpet brands took that advice. Of all the temptations to assail the marketer of a workaday product, the worst of these is sexing up the thing. And, as the two ads here demonstrate, this failing is hardly new.

Founded by Arshag and Miran Karagheusian in 1896, Gulistan (which took that name in 1924) occupies a prominent place in carpet history. The brothers were the first to import Persian carpets from Turkey and (with a little decorating help from Louis Comfort Tiffany) drew hoards of New Yorkers to their showroom in 1899 to marvel at the carpets' dazzling and complex patterns. By 1950, Gulistan was still making beautiful, high-quality carpets from 100 percent wool, even as synthetics like nylon had begun to creep into competitors' broadlooms.

So it's anyone's guess why, instead of spotlighting those facts, the company booked Elizabeth Taylor to pitch a rug. Actually, the 18-year-old starlet didn't even do that much. The company seems to have paid MGM for the rights to use her photo; the actress herself says nothing about the Gulistan Renaissance "sculptured weave" carpet floating nearby. Pretty lady, pretty dress, pretty carpet, end of pitch. "There's no real connection," says Totman, who wonders why Gulistan's admen didn't at least try to say that Elizabeth Taylor might have walked on the carpet.

Sixty-one years after Taylor attempted to sell one green carpet, the unidentified model on the opposite page is attempting to sell another one. But if the Gulistan ad at least tried for a kind of thematic connection, Karastan's approach is to create a kind of otherworldly garage sale. If the Karastan carpet here is indeed "designed for the way you live now," Totman can't see how. "Nobody I know lives like this now!" he says. "It looks like the movers came in and left halfway through the job. This kind of bong-smoking conceptual madness seems like the kind of thing usually reserved for Italian shoe advertising." As for the pretty lady, Totman says she makes no sense, either. "What is she doing? Did that carpet wrinkled on the floor trip her, and she fell into that chair?"

The lesson here, Totman says, is simple: Don't look for abstract meanings in a product that consumers already understand. "Both of these ads are distracted from what they're actually selling," he says. "And both have gone down the road of that age-old creative convention of female-as-prop."