Early last year, an ad agency approached Jonas Hansson, product manager for Mercene Labs in Stockholm, to see if he could create a quite unorthodox advertisement for Ikea: a magazine ad that asked pregnant women to pee on the page to reveal a discount for a crib.
“At first, I didn’t believe it was serious,” Hansson says. But the agency, Åkestam Holst, was serious, so Hansson got to work.
The ad debuted last month in the Swedish magazine Amelia, and prompted a flurry of media coverage. The ad uses technology similar to that of over-the-counter pregnancy tests. But it’s also more than that, and it could potentially lead to better tools for diagnosing certain types of heart disease.
“At first, I didn’t believe it was serious.”
It works like this: when a pregnant woman pees on the ad, the urine dissolves a red ink made of gold nanoparticles. That’s because those nanoparticles are infused with antibodies that attach themselves to a particular hormone found in the pee of pregnant women, called hCG. Thanks to special paper soaked in another hCG-binding antibody, the red ink sticks to the magazine page, revealing the discounted price within a couple of minutes. No, expectant mothers don’t have to bring the urine-soaked ad to the Ikea store. The ad is just a reminder that the $124 crib is on sale for $61 with the Ikea Family discount.
“This ad isn’t any ‘grosser’ than taking an ordinary pregnancy test, really,” Åkestam Holst art directors Evelina Rönnung and Hugo Wallmo say in an email to The Verge.
In at-home pregnancy tests, a strip also changes color if the woman is pregnant and her pee contains hCG. But the magazine ad had to be 100 times bigger than those pregnancy tests, so the technology needed to be tweaked. “When we tested materials similar to the ones in normal pregnancy tests, the wait until the text appears was almost an hour, and still very difficult to read,” Hansson says.
So Hansson started testing different kinds of materials developed by Mercene Labs, whose products are used in anything from floors to microchips. Eventually, he and his team combined several materials in different layers: one is a paper-like layer with large pores, so that the urine could be moved around the page quickly. That layer also contains the antibodies that interact with the hCG hormone and allow for the discounted price to appear next to the crib. The paper-like sheet was then sandwiched between two layers of a thin and flexible substance that could keep the urine from spreading everywhere and the magazine page from falling apart. This sandwich basically allowed the ad to feel like a glossy magazine page, instead of being hard like a piece of plastic, Hansson says.
“This ad isn’t any ‘grosser’ than taking an ordinary pregnancy test.”
Hansson is now working on developing a type of synthetic paper that could combine all of those characteristics, and be used to develop diagnostic tools to detect certain types of heart diseases. Heart attacks, for instance, are very hard to diagnose from symptoms alone, like chest pain. But if, say, paramedics in an ambulance had a tool that can pick up certain biomarkers from plasma, just like the ad picks up the pregnancy hormone from the urine, they could quickly determine whether someone is having a heart attack. That would allow patients to receive immediate treatment, which is key to survive a heart attack. “One of the goals with this kind of technology is to do something simple like the pregnancy stick but for diseases that are very hard to diagnose otherwise, because you need higher precision,” Hansson says.
Such tools are still a long way away, and the new synthetic material would need to undergo a long series of testing and clinical trials before it’s used to diagnose diseases. But Hansson is excited by the prospect. And it all started with a weird ad Hansson believed was a joke.
“I thought it was a weird request, but I also thought it was really funny,” he says. “I was not sure that Ikea would approve it, but they did.”
Correction January 18th, 2018 1:45PM ET: The article was updated to indicate that the Ikea magazine ad debuted in December 2017, not last week. We regret the error.