“Start the car!” shouts the woman in a ubiquitous IKEA TV commercial for its “Winter Sale.” She has received her receipt, and the total is so low that she assumes there has been a mistake. She quickly exits the store with bags of purchases, and while running calls to her husband in the car outside so he will pick her up and hit the gas before someone comes to reclaim the merchandise or demand more payment. As they drive away with what she thinks are her ill-gotten gains, she lets out a whoop of triumph.
The narration explains that IKEA’s sale prices are so low, this how you will feel.
The commercial is unethical. It trivializes and normalizes theft, and rejects the ethical values of honesty, integrity and responsibility. Apparently the ad has been running internationally for a long time (it only just started showing up in my region) and is very popular. Writes one industry commentator, “People relate to the message because at one point or another while shopping we’ve all had that feeling that we just got away with something.”
Really? I haven’t. My father didn’t either (my mom was another story.) I’ve told waitresses and clerks that they undercharged me. I’ve returned excessive change. I’ve handed back money to tellers when two bills stuck together. You don’t? What the hell’s the matter with you? Were you raised by Fagin?
Though the commercial was a hit and positively accepted in all of the nations where it was viewed, there is hope: it also received many negative comments and complaints. An Advertising Standards Board—I cannot for the life of me find out which; the U.S. has no such board. I’m guessing Sweden— thus considered whether this advertisement breached its Advertisers Code of Ethics.
The breach would be that the commercial isn’t socially responsible, since it represents taking merchandise from a store that hasn’t been fully paid for as normal and acceptable conduct. The Board viewed the advertisement in light of the complaints and decided that the ad was ethically inoffensive.
No, go ahead, guess.
The Board ruled that the advertisement was intended to be humorous and the woman had not in fact stolen from the store. Thus it concluded that it could find no find grounds to uphold the complaint as an endorsement of unethical behavior and dismissed the complaint.
And this is why inherently dicey professions like advertising are so frequently unethical. Their standard-makers couldn’t tell a box of ethics from a calliope. The woman’s conduct, motives and values are exactly the same whether she is in fact stealing or whether only thinks she is stealing. The Board’s conclusion is so ethically ignorant as to be frightening. How many people reason this way?
My guess: most of them. This is Rationalization #8, The Trivial Trap (“No harm no foul!”) and shows a lack of understanding of the concept of moral luck. The reasoning goes this way: You throw a hand grenade into a nursery, and it’s a dud, so you did nothing wrong.