Think you get to decide what you buy? Think again.

When Ikea launched its new collection of limited-edition rugs in Belgium, they decided to use biometric data to decide who would get to take one home. If you really wanted to buy a rug, you had to let Ikea tap into your brain to prove you deserved it.

It was their strategy to prevent people from reselling the rugs for 10 times their price.

Why a $500 rug is now worth thousands

The eight rugs are part of the Ikea Art Event 2019 collection. All were designed by in-demand artists, such fashion designer Virgil Abloh. He's artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton. Ikea would sell the high-design rugs at affordable prices.  

It's a noble endeavor, to make high-class art more accessible to the masses. But it rarely works.

What usually happens is that people scoop up these limited-edition items for the sole purpose of reselling them. Take Virgil Abloh's rug, for example. It originally sold for $500. There's one on eBay listed for $5,000 right now.

You have to really love it to buy it

When the Art Event rugs became available for sale in Belgium, Ikea wanted people to buy them for the right reason. They couldn't prevent anyone from reselling them. You can do whatever you want with your rug after you buy it, including listing it on eBay.

But maybe Ikea could prevent people with the wrong intentions from buying the rugs in the first place.

Ikea hired advertising agency Ogilvy Social Lab Brussels to come up with a creative solution. Their idea? A headset that reads your brain waves and heartbeat. And an algorithm. They called it the Ikea (He)art Scanner. Clever.

Basically, you had to have an emotional response to be allowed to purchase a rug.

Letting an algorithm make the final call

Ikea displayed the rugs on the wall, as in a showroom or art gallery. Customers put on a headset and approached a rug. The headset read their brain waves and heartbeat. A score appeared on the wall.

"When people looked at the art, our specially designed algorithm could categorize the data from the brain and body reactions," the Ogilvy campaign explains. If someone received a sufficient score, they were allowed to buy the rug.

It took about a week for the rugs to sell out. That's fast, but not as fast as those that instantly sold out at other stores. Ikea Belgium deemed the campaign a success. It claims that zero rugs from its promotion turned up on eBay--though that would be pretty hard to prove.

A warning about going all-in on algorithms

Thanks to the headset and algorithm, Ogilvy claims that "only true art lovers" were able to buy a rug. That's a bit of a stretch. Ikea certainly made a strong statement about who art should be for--everyone. But it can't claim that it knows if people really love art (or don't) because a headset read their brain waves for a few seconds.

Consider using this headset in other retail environments. Should you only be allowed to buy something if your body has the "appropriate" emotional reaction? Let's hope not. ​

Published on: May 23, 2019
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