“Start The Car!” Ethics

“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.

Guess why.

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.


18 thoughts on ““Start The Car!” Ethics

  1. I have had that exact situation happen to me on several occasions. I was also in retail loss management for 33 years. I have always gone back and had the cashier correct the situation for two main reasons. First, that shortage in inventory or cash will eventually show up, and someone will have to pay for it. That someone will not be the big bad profitable corporation as people assume. It will be a low-level employee or store manager because that is the way these corporations design their compensation packages to deal with inventory and cash shortages. Secondly, I have to live with myself. The ad is in the poorest taste, and after a career of coping with that negative issue on a daily basis, it makes me sick.

        • I haven’t. … 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?

          I don’t get it.

          I may have a price. I can’t say for sure that I don’t. But I don’t think it would be in monetary terms. If it was, it would be in at least multiple trillions, not a few bucks, for taking a dump on my integrity.

          My son.. I worry about. He has financial acumen I don’t. A very, very good businessmen, even at 15. I think he still has the first dollar he ever earned too, he takes money in, doesn’t give it out.

          But even he doesn’t do stuff like that, even though he’ll hunt for bargains with the same intensity as Inspector Javert, and is just as merciless in business transactions.

      • I found it icky…
        Not just offensive at the thinking, logical level, but also at a dogmatic, automatic reaction for me. I guess my parents did a good job.

        My wife’s cousin is a bank branch manager for one of the big nationwide banks. She has shared stories of people who have had accidental deposits into their accounts. They see it and spend it. Then they are shocked when they are told they have to pay it back.

        I’m sure those folks find the commercial halarious.

  2. The prices are so low at IKEA we should be talking about the ethics of retailers. I avoid the place. I have been a few times. I bought a large (foot and a half by a foot) terra cotta planter pot for eight bucks. Wasn’t on sale. It was made in Vietnam.

    How anyone can have a pot made in Vietnam, presumably by humans, then shipped across the Pacific and then trucked to Arizona and then sell it for a profit for eight dollars is beyond me.

    • [This comment has been trashed because the commenter has been suspended for a comment Ethics Alarms views as dishonest and offensive to the site and the host. pending a retraction and apology]

  3. What I find offensive is the Ikea-assumption that all Americans are like that woman. I understand there are VAST differences between the Swedish culture and ours, but are they that vast or does a Swedish board of directors just not understand the culture of this large a market?

    • Well it ain’t 1950s Sweden anymore…if the Domenic Johansson case is any indication, the corruption runs pretty deep there these days and no one really cares.

  4. “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?”

    My line is: “I’m not going to fight you on this, but are you sure? ’cause that seems off.” And I don’t know if it’s just me… Or if electronic transactions have denormalised cash transactions, or if cashiers are just getting worse… But this seems to come up a LOT more frequently than I ever remember.

    • Yes, it DOES. And managers of the place refuse to go back and fix it- saying it’s ok, it’s not a problem. It makes me wonder if there’s no longer the same countdown procedures now that people aren’t doing their own math? Like if the server accidentally gives you a free drink, it’s like $2-3. But leaving off an appetizer can be $8-20. It got made in the kitchen and served to the table, and with computer ordering, I honestly can’t tell how that happened without the POS (point of sale) system capturing it?

      Clearly a bunch of us who read this are all of the same ilk. Because that paragraph is true of probably almost every one of us, many times over. Ick on that commercial. I remember ones like that when I was a kid that made me think the same.

      • Yep! I remember a day, back when, in which counting back change meant just that. “$8.32 out of twenty…that’s 9, ten 15 and twenty”…now-a-days, the cash register tells them what the change should be, and they just hand it to you. Room for a lot of error, there.

        • You have no idea.

          My first management job was at a place that hadn’t integrated their debit system… So a cashier would ring through the order, total the till, manually enter the amount into the debit terminal, wait for approval, then manually enter the approved amount into the till. A cashier put through a $50 order, correctly put through a $50 debit transaction, then keyed the approval into the till as $500. She actually opened the till and gave $450 as ‘change’ in 10s and 20s to a customer who thought they had won the lottery and ran away screaming “Start The Car.” (Not really for that last part)

          To this day, I don’t think she understands what she did wrong; “The till told me to!”

    • Yep. I was just at the store. The sale was buy 3 sodas and get $2 off a rotisserie chicken. I bought the 3 sodas, but didn’t buy a chicken. As I was walking out, I saw I had received $2 off my total even thought I bought no chicken. I pointed this out to the cashier and tried to hand her $2, and she had no idea how to handle it as she had already closed the till. I ended up going to the Assistance Counter and had to explain the story three times. I finally handed them the receipt and $2 and walked out. I still don’t know if they figured it out.

      What’s most disconcerting about this commercial is that it shows someone being both stupid (unable to do simple math) and excited about being successful in (supposed) theft.

      • I once got in an argument with a 7-11 clerk who gave me three cents back on a $2.O3 charge when I gave her a buck and a nickel. She kept ringing it up wrong, and getting snippy when I said, “No, 5 cents minus 3 cents is 2 cents, not 3 cents.” “You don’t believe me? I’ll ring it again—see? It’s three cents!” Like I was the idiot.

        I think of her every time I hear the argument that everyone has a right to a living wage.

  5. I’m with you on returning extra change, etc. But was the commercial really portraying the fleeing customer’s behavior as something to celebrate and emulate? I felt like it was mocking her for believing she was getting away with a literal “steal” when in fact the store is just really cheap. I don’t get any “pro-stealing” message from the commercial–I don’t get “you should do this,” I get “this is how you will feel, but don’t worry, you’re not really stealing from us.”

  6. For me this falls into the same category as waiting at a “Don’t Walk!” light even when there’s no traffic. I’ve always figured if I couldn’t be bothered to obey those little laws, I’d never manage it with the big ones. At least it feels something like that, so I also would be among those who went back to see if a mistake had been made.

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