Ghosts appear when IKEA disappears women

Ghosts appear when IKEA disappears women October 2, 2012

What’s the world coming from if you can’t cater to Saudia Arabian consumers by airbrushing all women out of pictures in your catalog? Swedish furniture giant IKEA did that and they’re hearing it from angry women and human rights activists. Women: can’t have them in your fancy catalog, can’t airbrush them out of existence.

Anyway, the Wall Street Journal had a big piece in its business section on the brouhaha:

Representatives for Swedish furniture giant IKEA on Monday apologized for removing women from some of the photos in catalogs shipped to Saudi Arabia, and said the blame lies squarely with them, not the local franchisee.

The move to manipulate photos sparked criticism from government officials in Sweden and raised questions about how IKEA is living up to its own values.

IKEA’s catalog is shipped all over the world, with the company this year expected to publish 200 million copies with 62 different versions. The bulk of the catalog is exactly the same in most markets, but the company has said in the past it tailors the images to suit fashion-related tastes of local markets.

In some cases, however, the catalog is changed to align with cultural standards.

So we learn that IKEA has its own values and that the Saudi Arabian culture is different from that.

But those values and cultures aren’t explained very well.

There’s a sample of what the airbrushing accomplishes above (voila! No woman!). And we learn how a Stockholm newspaper broke the story. We learn, again, that the airbrushing of women so as to pretend that women don’t exist is something IKEA now regrets.

[IKEA spokeswoman Ulrika] Englesson Sandman said the omissions were completely needless since Saudi Arabia doesn’t prohibit women from being depicted in marketing material. “We understand why people are upset,” she said.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized for treatment of women that includes forbidding travel, study or work without permission from their male guardians. Saudi Arabia also prohibits women from driving a car.

OK, I realize that the Wall Street Journal is simply quoting the spokeswoman, but she’s wrong. Or not telling the whole truth. There are unbelievably dramatic restrictions on the depictions of women in Saudia Arabian marketing, including at the IKEA in Riyadh. It’s obvious that IKEA didn’t just — on a crazy whim based on nothing — decide to spend a lot of time and money removing women from ads. They did it for a reason. You can learn a bit about that reason by looking at the photos of the furnishings at the IKEA in Riyadh.

Call me crazy but maybe the story should quote some people who are not spokeswomen for IKEA. Perhaps the group investigating itself for why it did something isn’t the best one to talk to about what it all means. Maybe an outsider or two could help.

And when quoting the IKEA folks, maybe we could get them to explain more about their values than a simple reference to their non-discrimination policy.

And I can’t be the only person who wonders why religion doesn’t make an appearance in this story (apart from learning that IKEA doesn’t discriminate based on religion).

Talk about a ghost.

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3 responses to “Ghosts appear when IKEA disappears women”

  1. I don’t see religion appearing based on the final paragraph:

    The company, looking to avoid a potential political fallout, on Sept. 21 deleted a photo from its Russian corporate Web page showing four young people in balaclavas that could have been viewed as a gesture of support for three jailed members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot.

    From that it seems clear that Ikea was making a marketing decision and, in hindsight, a bad one. In this case it was a marketing decision based on their perception of the cultural and religious norms in Saudi Arabia. I’d bet that the people who made that decision never thought about the religious implications but strictly focused on what seemed to be a good marketing/sales choice.

    And given the gawker article showing what the Saudi censors actually did in various cases, I’m not surprised at their choices

    The real issue that should be covered is what happens when a secular good, making a profit, is in conflict with a moral/ethical good, being true to one’s beliefs.

  2. Gasp! Next we’ll hear that the purpose of advertising is to sell stuff… or is the point that Ikea should not do business in Saudi Arabia?