IKEA Refuses to Make Political Statement in Russia

This post was originally published on Oct. 13 and then revised on Dec. 5.

If IKEA was a person, I might describe his (yes IKEA would be a boy, and you’ll understand why later) recent developments of personal identity kind of– well–there’s no better way to put it than just plain pussy. Since IKEA is a corporate entity, though, its recent advertising botches and lack of political willpower are perhaps to be expected.

The balaclava masks in this customer-submitted photo have become a trademark of the Pussy Riot arrests. (Image from lfpress.com)

Last month, a customer from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg submitted a photo portraying four young adults wearing balaclava masks while sitting on IKEA furniture to IKEA’s website (RT.com). IKEA quickly pulled the image from the website. According to the Moscow Times, the company replaced it with the following statement:

“IKEA is a commercial organization that operates beyond politics and religion. We cannot allow our advertising project to be used as a means of propaganda of any kind.”

IKEA labeled the Pussy Riot evoking image as “propaganda” and refused to take a religious or political stand in the Pussy Riot situation. (Image from Edge of the Sandbox)

‘What’s so offensive about brightly colored masks?’ you might ask. Pussy Riot is a Russian, feminist punk band that has been causing a storm of publicity over the past few months. Some of the band’s members were recently arrested and are now being sentenced to imprisonment for an act of hooliganism, which they performed while wearing masks similar to those in the IKEA customer’s photo above. Read more about the Pussy Riot controversy in a Eurokulture blog post entitled “A Punk Band’s Prayer – Deliver Us from Putin” by Dmitry Choukline.

The contest was a part of Russia’s marketing campaign, “Face of the Cover,” which encourages shoppers in Russian MEGA malls to take their photo in front of the IKEA Catalogue cover and submit it online. Customers then vote on their favorite image, and the winner is featured in IKEA’s marketing and advertising (Wall Street Journal).

Before the image in question was removed, it garnered 1,431 likes – more than any other submission that week (First Post).

James Thomas Snyder, a blogger out of Washington D.C. who has written extensively about foreign policy, was infuriated by IKEA’s decision to pull the image from their website.

“It’s important to parse IKEA’s statement to understand just exactly how cowardly, stupid and hypocritical it is. IKEA has no grounds to pull this image and to replace it with this utterly misleading and disingenuous statement,” wrote Snyder. “The political can be defined by moral norms that we choose for others.  And in this case, IKEA is unwilling to allow others — that is, Russians — to express those particular norms in their own, free way, using IKEA as a platform.”

He argued that IKEA didn’t ultimately have to use the image for their catalogue cover but shouldn’t have removed it from the site. He called IKEA’s acts hypocritical, recalling a controversial ad that the company ran in Italy just last year.

The ad in question portrayed a gay couple with IKEA shopping bag in hand. It read, “Siamo aperti a tutte le faiglie.” or “We are open to all families.” IKEA experienced backlash from Catholic, conservative Italians who claimed that they were eroding family values (The Inspiration Room).

Most of Italy is Catholic and conservative, so this ad caused negative backlash when it ran in 2011. (Image from the TowleRoad.com)

Snyder found no fault with the portrayal of a gay couple in IKEA’s advertising…until IKEA took down the Pussy Riot image. He said they made a political statement in Italy, but didn’t allow their customers to make a political statement of their own in Russia.

I very much agree with Snyder’s position on IKEA’s hypocrisy in this situation. Right now, advertisers are using more engaging means to interact with potential and current buyers. When a brand’s constituents enter in on a participatory marketing measure, the opinions of the participants don’t necessarily represent the opinions of the brand.

I think IKEA’s reaction to the balaclava image was made in haste. Their immediate reaction was to hush any disruption that might occur on their site. When you look at other brands using social networking, blogs or other shopper-submitted input, the smart ones do not restrict the opinions of those shoppers. It reduces their credibility.

Just because someone puts a bad review on their site, doesn’t mean they should delete it. In order to appear honest and authentic, brands should not censor user input. The balaclava image wasn’t a reflection on IKEA’s ideals at all until it was removed. It represented the ideas of the submitters, but when it was removed it showed just how ready IKEA is to quell user opinions. IKEA opened itself up to controversy with its hasty reaction.

The image on the left shows a picture from the standard copy of the IKEA Catalogue, while the image on the right shows the woman airbrushed out for the Saudi Arabian catalogue. (Image from the Wall Street Journal)

Still wondering why I gendered IKEA a boy?

Shortly after removing the Russian image from their website, IKEA made another advertising move in Saudi Arabia that critics like Snyder might find cowardly. The company was discovered airbrushing women out of their catalogue before running the images in Saudi Arabia.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia does not prohibit women from being portrayed in marketing materials, even though women are restricted from basic rights like studying without permission or driving a car. IKEA apologized for the airbrushed images but seems to be botching every political advertising issue that comes their way. The company issued a statement saying:

“We should have reacted and realized that excluding women from the Saudi Arabian version of the catalogue is in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”

I’m starting to wonder what those group values are.

Feministing.com got a laugh out of the apology, amazed that IKEA could apologize for, “Values like, you know, not erasing women’s existence.”

In 2000, IKEA faced rejection of two ads it created for the Moscow metro for an entirely different reason. One bragged, “Every 10th European was made in our beds.” The other had an image of the IKEA Catalogue and claimed that it was, “The most-read publication in the world. After the Bible, thank God” (The Moscow Times). These ads were rejected because they were perceived as being to forward.

Over the past year, IKEA seems to have learned a lesson about taking political stands and being controversial. Unfortunately, it seems to be the wrong lesson. Instead of inviting conversation that includes but does not directly implicate their brand, they are shunning controversy.

The Saudi Arabia incident illustrates this well, but I think the real cowardliness of IKEA was displayed through the removal of the balaclava ad. Instead of opening itself up for controversy by removing the ad, IKEA should have left the ad up and allowed controversy over the image itself to stir. This would have created exposure for the brand without shining a political light on the company. IKEA could have stood by a policy of non-censure and simply said that it does not support all opinions expressed in user submissions.

IKEA has done a bang-up job of expressing its own political opinions, but it’s time for the company to stop shying away from the opinions of others. I for one am ready for IKEA to get its marketing mojo back.

One thought on “IKEA Refuses to Make Political Statement in Russia

  1. Nice job you guys! Thanks for the coverage of my site. This is a serious issue in Russia. Let’s buck up our Scandanavian friends for free speech in countries that aren’t so enthusiastic about the First Amendment!

    (Be sure to call those masks for what they are: balaclavas, not baklavas — the latter are a sweet treat from the middle east made with nuts and honey. Which come tho think of it sounds like what you’d see at a “political rally” for Vladimir Putin.)

    Keep up the good work! — James Snyder

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