In many countries IKEA is known for its socially progressive, often humorous advertising campaigns.
In 1994 the Swedish retailer made what is thought to be the first TV commercial featuring a gay couple. And in the UK, the company’s current TV campaign has been hailed as one of the first to feature a black family without drawing attention to their race.
But when it comes to China, IKEA seems less willing to break with social convention.
Its latest campaign played on the “leftover woman” theme (see WiC99). In it a mother scolds her adult daughter during a family meal because she still hasn’t found a husband. The twist – if it can be defined as such – is that the daughter is trying to tell her parents that she has a boyfriend and he is waiting outside. Cue a hurried attempt by the parents to spruce up their apartment – using IKEA products, naturally – before letting him in.
The tagline is “Celebrate Easily” but for China’s growing number of urban singles the ad was a little trite, and even offensive.
They say the pressure to marry is often intense. What they crave is some understanding of their lives as singletons and a more positive portrayal of their achievements as individuals.
“I hate this ad, it makes me so unhappy,” one woman fumed on Sina Weibo.
“Would they show this ad in Sweden? Why are they showing it here?” asked another.
There are some 200 million unmarried adults in China, according to a 2015 report by the Ministry of Civil affairs.
Other organisations put the figure a bit lower. Last year China’s largest dating website Shiji Jiayuan calculated there were 38 million single women over the age of 27.
Years of sex selection during the One-Child Policy have also created a huge gender imbalance: as of 2015 there were 33.5 million more Chinese men than women.
Whichever figure you go with, that’s a huge market for IKEA, especially as many of the women delay or decide against marriage because they want to concentrate on their education and then their career.
Many of them are precisely the urban, middle-class consumers that IKEA wants to welcome to its 24 Chinese stores.
“Don’t ignore the feelings of the young and tech-savvy Chinese consumers, especially women,” one retail consultant told the South China Morning Post. “Companies need to take a very careful approach when talking about topics related to nationalism and women’s rights in China, as both are areas of high sensitivity.”
Mainland media outlets purported to also take offence, accusing IKEA of being sexist and creating “social anxiety”.
“Since IKEA entered the Chinese market, it has been loved by the vast numbers of young people,” wrote Hebei’s Dahe Net, “but this ad has left them feeling depressed.”
Even Xinhua chimed in on the topic, saying the ad had deviated from “social civilisation” and “transmitted negative information about marriage”.
IKEA didn’t take long to the drop the campaign and it also issued an apology saying it “encourages people to live many different lifestyles”.
“Gender equality is a fundamental part of the IKEA culture and values,” it claimed.
Close to 89 million Chinese visited IKEA in 2016, generating Rmb11.6 billion in sales.
IKEA isn’t the first foreign brand to stumble into a delicate area. In July the German carmaker Audi had to apologise for an ad that showed a mother inspecting her soon-to-be daughter-in-law like a used car.
Japanese skincare brand SK-II, won praise in April, however, when it released a short film showing how “leftover women” struggle with the guilt of not marrying and the desire to balance their own goals with those of their parents (see WiC321).
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