Home furnishing giant IKEA has had some interesting times these past couple weeks. First, the company pulled the winning image of a social media photo competition because its Russian customers had voted for teenagers sitting in an IKEA showroom wearing colorful balaclavas, in the style of jailed political punk rockers P**** Riot.
Then came backlash against the Saudi Arabian version of its catalog because women had been Photoshopped out of several images. The latter reaction should not be surprising for a company based in Sweden, where women's rights are respected. According to the Wall Street Journal, a company spokeswoman said the move was in conflict with company values.
In a sprawling global operation it's not surprising that management errors such as this occur. But while cultural relativism may be savvy business when it comes to taste and fashion, it risks being seen as corporate irresponsibility once it pushes into political territory.
Perhaps this incident resonated with people because on a symbolic level being deleted or "disappeared" or made invisible has long been a criminal tactic of repressive regimes. The IKEA catalog is certainly not some revolutionary text where the future of Saudi human rights is decided, but perception is politics nonetheless. Why else would the Iranian regime use Photoshop to cover up a failed missile test?
On the brighter side, IKEA also announced that it would soon be selling only LED light bulbs, which are more efficient and longer lasting than compact fluorescents and conventional bulbs. Score one for reducing carbon emissions.