IKEA Pussies Out in Russia

Calling itself apolitical and nonreligious, Ikea removed this photo from a contest for its next catalog cover.The Moscow Times recently reported that IKEA, the world’s most recognizable home furnishings brand, recently pulled this image (left) from an online competition to produce the cover image for their products 2013 catalog in Russia.

In place of this image, which was produced and submitted by fans (apparently) of both IKEA and the recently prosecuted band Pussy Riot, the company issued this statement:

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

(English translation provided by The Times. I don’t know if the original was published in Russian or Swedish.)

At the risk of killing an issue that should be very much alive inside Russia, which has seen even more state-ordered constraints on civil society in the wake of the Pussy Riot sentences, 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.

This issue returns to what I have consistently written about here on this site: the fundamental definition of the political.  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.  IKEA doesn’t have to choose this particular image for its catalogue cover, but since the company opened up the site to all comers they are obligated to allow anything that is not obscene or shocking to remain.

IKEA advertisement from Italy, 2011

Moreover, IKEA is acting hypocritically by removing a user image given its own advertising history. In 2011, the company ran an advertisement (right) in Italy featuring a gay couple with the tagline, “We are open to all families”.  Italy is, in part, a deeply Catholic country and culturally deeply conservative.  It is difficult not to see this advertisement — issued from the company itself — as a political statement given the social context, whether or not you support the idea of same-sex couples and families.

I am much less tolerant of IKEA willing to make a political statement — specifically, stating in public that gay couples are or should be the social norm — and then denying its own customers the same ability to use the brand to express support for their political idols.

I should add here that I utterly reject the assertion (barring any error in translation) that the photo’s authors are engaged in propaganda.  Propaganda is one of those terms that has been abused of any intrinsic popular meaning, but I am willing to assert that only states can engage in propaganda.  Besides, the image itself is benign enough to be stripped of the provocation normally associated with propaganda — perhaps a subtle commentary on the “punk prayer” that got Pussy Riot arrested in the first place.  (Decontextualization can be a keen means of understanding art and political commentary.)  And it further demonstrates IKEA’s complete incomprehension of political expression at a time when its compatriots across Scandinavia are supporting democratic movements among their eastern neighbors.

IKEA owes not just the creators of this image but its customers and the Russian people the respect and understanding of political expression.  It should repost the image and apologize.