By: Madeline Rose
IKEA’s annual catalogue is surprisingly uniform for being printed in 41 countries. With some minor layout differences, on top of language changes, all 200 million copies look relatively the same, with one glaring discrepancy this year. The recently released 2013 IKEA catalogue has sparked controversy in Sweden and the West with the stylistic changes to the Saudi Arabian catalogue. To better fit the demographic, they airbrushed women out of photos or provided alternative shots to avoid their depiction. A mother brushing her teeth standing beside her son, a woman fluffing pillows, and women preparing dinner were among those deemed unsuitable. Even one of the designers was removed from a picture of the creative team. Alcohol too was replaced by “festive cups” and containers of Diet Coke to appeal to Saudi Arabian values.
For being founded by a nation that has zero tolerance for gender inequality, IKEA did not represent homeland ideals. The action contradicts IKEA’s own proposed image, clashing with articles on their website featuring women and “women who change the world.” The hypocrisy did not go unremarked as Swedish officials from the Equality Minister to the Minister of Trade gave their two cents on how misguided the Saudi Arabian adaptation was. On October 1, 2012, the company issued a statement apologizing for the blunder. IKEA said they are rethinking their approach to advertising, “to safeguard a correct content presentation from a values point-of-view in the different versions of the IKEA catalogue worldwide.”
This of course was not the first time IKEA has struggled to work with advertising that appeals to the Middle East, nor is IKEA the first company to make bold changes to accommodate the fundamentalist mentality. When Starbucks first opened their doors in Saudi Arabia, the company chose to exclude the woman from the logo and leave only her crown. Just this past summer, model, Gisele Bündchen, was photoshopped to include T-shirts under her outfits in H&M ads run in the Middle East. While women cannot drive, move out of a home, or vote without familial male supervision, it is not illegal for women to be depicted in Saudi Arabian culture. Just very little of them is allowed to be seen. In the past, IKEA has had to allow women to be crossed out or have blocks covering up arms and legs on women in their ads. Only one other time did IKEA have to leave out a woman altogether. In the early 90s, a woman was depicted laying on a couch, reading a book, which was deemed to perpetuate laziness, but the depiction of women doing chores is approved of by Saudi Arabian audiences. Which makes it all the more perplexing that IKEA chose to start leaving out women altogether, now, when women in most of the pictures were doing active household chores.
While the removal of women did not conform to IKEA Group standards or Swedish perspective, the ads were not published for them. Swedish customers indeed had their own version of the catalogue set to appeal to their values. The Saudi Arabian catalogue was designed to fit the taste of a country that oppresses half its population. While Swedish advertising law strictly enforces irresponsible and deceitful advertising, and doesn’t even allow advertising directed to children under the age of 12, the company has not stepped beyond their rights as a private enterprise. IKEA admits that they have rather crossed a line in regards to ethical and responsible advertising. In choosing to represent the values of the audience above their own, they perhaps were engaging in good advertising to that particular group, but the subversive ethics of their campaign may cost them. No less, they have made a drastic move that opens up debate on what responsible advertising looks like.