IKEA Erases Women; Beware the Ides of Market

October 5, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

I disagree with IKEA’s decision to airbrush women out of its Saudi Arabian advertisements. The move was simply distasteful. That said, IKEA made the decision as part of an intentional marketing strategy to boost sales and expand its presence in the Saudi Kingdom.

From a business and economics standpoint, this seems to be a reasonable attempt by a firm to appeal to its customer. But for most, especially in the West, it seems disgraceful and offensive. From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, perhaps it seems culturally appropriate. While we are each entitled to our own opinion of this – mine being that IKEA made a grave and uncouth error – I’d like to point out that the situation is already being handled – by the free market and the global pressures of free societies. IKEA, beware.

Before I jump in, I’d like to take a brief moment to discuss how IKEA’s marketing decision could be defended. First, IKEA’s marketing was most likely nothing more than that – marketing. IKEA spokeswoman Ulrika Englesson has expressed that IKEA tries “to adapt to the cultures and the legislation that are there [in Saudi Arabia].” It is easy to take offense to this, but difficult to realize that IKEA’s strategy was probably not some vicious attack on women at all. Rather, the marketing was directed to a particular customer that is turned off by women in advertisements. Does this make it right? No, especially if you are a company from Sweden – a country with a Ministry of Equality – but this is not the point. The point is that IKEA is allowed to choose marketing campaigns as it sees fit…but it will face consequences.

Second, IKEA’s advertisements represent a form of free speech. Based on the first point, IKEA was most likely not trying to send a negative message about women’s roles in society. Rather, it was probably campaigning for an audience. If, however, IKEA did intend to portray a message about women’s roles, then, although offensive, IKEA has a right to issue that message.

Third, IKEA is a private company. Although Sweden’s equality minister, Nyamko Sabuni characterized IKEA’s advertising strategy as “completely wrong,” she did concede that IKEA is a private enterprise. Because of this, IKEA is (or should be) free to conduct its own affairs.

The problem, however, is that IKEA did not make any of these arguments. Rather, the company offered an honorable and much appreciated apology. However, if IKEA is going to change its advertising this way, then it needs to understand how the free market and free societies will treat its actions.

This leads me to my main point: the market will handle IKEA. We who believe in free societies and market pressures, should trust in the power of these forces to deal with IKEA appropriately. Many individuals view what IKEA did as egregiously offensive and unacceptable, but others view it as savvy business or cultural astuteness. Those in the former category may withhold their business, and those in the latter may increase it.

For example, many of the posts responding to articles about this event are fairly heated and in direct conflict to each other. Some have called for a boycott of IKEA while others defend IKEA’s right and willingness to approach the Kingdom with a customer-oriented strategy. Either way, the shifting forces in IKEA’s market will send IKEA a message.

Although IKEA has the right to market and conduct its private business as it pleases, it must beware the ides of the market. I appreciate IKEA’s apology, but we will see if the market does.

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