Many people know how diversity-friendly and inclusive IKEA is as an international family brand. They have even won international awards for positive portrayal of LGBT persons in their ad campaigns. But here is the thing: “positive portrayal” in ad campaigns is a strategy not a believe
Ikea is preoccupied with relationships. Whereas traditional stores have usually appealed to individual consumers, Ikea wants to attract families or groups of friends. There catalogues mostly depict just couples trailing around, but the rest of the extended family, too: it is the modern equivalent of the day at the seaside in the 50s and 60s, a chance for the family to do something communally and the whole world of the catalogue is still 80% stereotyped.
But Ikea wants to have it both ways. It knows that the nuclear family is disintegrating, so it seeks to appeal beyond its boundaries. So, their ad campaigns, try to target a less stereotype image. A few years ago, it ran an ad campaign, tagged “Make a fresh start”, that encouraged people in failing marriages to get divorced. It pitches directly to remarrying couples, to single parents (men as well as women), and to gay couples, who feature prominently in its advertising. Part of its optimism lies in a belief that the right relationship can be found; that dud relationships should be ditched; that you must be yourself.
But here is the problem, whenever traditional role models are challenged, it is almost always part of a campaign and if a shitstorm occurs, the company has withdrawn from there bold and right statements more than once.
In the US in 1994 IKEA ran a commercial widely thought to be the first commercial featuring a homosexual couple. This groundbreaking spot made news around the world: it features a male couple shopping for a dining room table together. However, the spot ran only once in New York City and Washington, D.C. after 21:30 in deference to children. Many wrongly assumed the commercial was meant to target gay buyers, but it was part of a larger campaign about “non-traditional” families, including a mixed-race couple and a single mom with an adopted child.
The IKEA ad disappeared soon after it began when the retailer got a bomb threat at a store from conservatives, along with calls for a boycott.
It took Ikea until 2006 to give it another try in America the company returned to its (gay) roots in the US with a new spot including another gay pair, this time with a child. Following a rainbow of families, the black and Asian male couple is joined by their Golden Retriever and daughter, snuggled in domestic bliss. An ending voiceover asks: “Why shouldn’t sofas come in flavors, just like families?”
Internationally there have been a lot of ads featuring everything from gay couples to transsexuals since. And in some countries, it seems to go more smoothly than in others: When largely criticized in Poland for a gay ad, the company did not withdrawal, even when facing a boycott, they stated that for them sexual preference (or any other minority issue) was not relevant. As a matter of fact, they found it so ‘normal’ that they thought it did not even need discussion or explanation.
However, an interview with a lesbian couple in the Russian version of their magazine in 2013 was pulled, due to the nation’s anti-gay “homosexual propaganda” law. “One of the conditions we have of running our business is that we have to follow the law in the markets where we operate,” IKEA spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson told The Wall Street Journal.
This was not the first-time Ikea has been criticized for changing its promotional material. The year before, images of women were deleted from Ikea’s Saudi Arabia catalog. Questions were then raised about Ikea’s commitment to gender equality, and the company later said it regretted the move.
But here is the thing again, while IKEA can be applauded, for trying and pioneering an equal and differentiated world in media, their Ikea catalogue is still an 80% stereotype catering to traditional families and values, and while we think that those stereotypes should be included, we would love to see a more diverse approach just there.
With a print of 203 million copies a year, the IKEA catalogue is one of the most read publications next to the bible, the Koran and Harry Potter. The company claims they have it all figured out in a recent released statement praising their new July 2017 publication the company states:
“IKEA has ethnographers who conduct field research into the domestic life of different regions through home visits, interviews and panels and helps catalogue creators plan the content and styling of local editions.”
While the texts remain basically the same worldwide, IKEA’s team does go the extra mile to swap out subtle, tell-tale details in 72 different region-specific editions.
Maybe IKEA will have a surprise in store with its July 2017 release, but so far on the European side of things the IKEA catalogue still features the woman in the kitchen, and the traditional families or friends at the dinner table, even worse when it comes to children’s’ toys, where classical role models are almost always a given. Have you seen a boy in a princess room? Two boys in an Ikea play kitchen? A group of friends at a dinner table including transsexuals, cross dressers or other identities, ever seen an ad using different pronouns?
A commitment to equal rights and changing family types should not be a just a campaign you can switch on and off depending on current political moods, it’s a great start for sure, but for a company with a reach and an impact like IKEA, they could really make a difference, if instead of trying to be a trendsetter, deeply anchoring their beliefs into their mission and inspiring people worldwide to embrace the beauty of differences and really setting a new standard. You either believe in equality or not – it’s not a part time job, or a communications strategy – it’s all in, or out. And we would love to see Ikea turn from making an impact occasionally to becoming a mental leader for an equal and diverse world.