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IKEA gets slammed for -- cultural sensitivity?

October 01, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • An image of a pajama-clad woman in IKEA's catalog was edited out of the Saudi version.
An image of a pajama-clad woman in IKEA's catalog was edited out of… (Associated Press )

If a Saudi company were advertising its home goods in the United States, we would expect its marketing materials to include photos of both men and women, and we would expect most of the women not to have their bodies and hair hidden in the photos. Though there is plenty of diversity in this country, those are the cultural norms. And chances are that because this is a country of ethnic diversity as well, we'd expect the company's catalogs and so forth to show some of that as well.

So I am puzzled about the criticism of furniture giant IKEA. If the criticism were for replacement parts that aren't available when pieces break, as they almost inevitably do, or the lightweight quality of the furniture that accompanies its lightweight prices, it would be understandable -- even if it seems almost impossible to furnish a college student's room without a stop at the giant warehouse to consider whether the GAVIK or FILLSTA would make a better table lamp.

In this case, though, the Swedish company is coming under fire -- and has actually apologized -- for deleting women from its Saudi catalogs. Portrayals of women are uncommon in Saudi Arabian advertising. In several cases, the women were edited out of photos that had appeared in catalogs elsewhere. IKEA came out with a statement saying that this conflicted with the company's values of gender equality.

The sad truth is, though, that Saudi Arabia is not a bastion of gender equality. Far from it. And though people have every right to disagree with such Saudi values, it seems odd and unfair to ding a company for making sure that its advertising was culturally sensitive to the nation where it is hoping to sell its goods and in keeping with that society's values. Is cultural sensitivity something to applaud only when it is in keeping with our notions of how a society should be?


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