ROME — When pasta king Guido Barilla found himself pilloried on social media for saying he would never use a gay family in his advertising, rival pasta maker Buitoni was quick to capitalise.
A picture on its Facebook page featured the caption: “#PastaForAll.”
A picture on the German Facebook page of Bertolli, another competitor of Barilla, read “Pasta und Liebe für alle!” (Pasta and Love for All!)
It was a stark demonstration of the rising power of social media; Barilla’s comments to a medium-sized Italian radio station on Wednesday quickly became a global public relations disaster with a likely knock-on effect on sales.
The comments that he would “never” do an ad “with a homosexual family” to a station that has barely more than 2 million daily listeners spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook, sparking worldwide calls to boycott Barilla products on Thursday.
In his official apology, Barilla said he was sorry “if my words generated misunderstandings and polemics” and “if I offended some people”. He said he was trying to say “simply that the woman plays a central role in a family”.
The comments will weigh on U.S. sales in the short term, and Barilla’s immediate response to the uproar was “muddled and odd”, Ashley McCown, a crisis communications expert at Solomon McCown in Boston, told Reuters.
“In the U.S. people want to feel good about the things they buy and who they buy them from.”
The privately owned Barilla company was founded by Guido’s great grandfather more than 130 years ago and is the world’s biggest pasta maker.
Seeking to boost sales outside of crisis-hit Italy, Barilla has recently focused on expanding in the U.S., its second biggest pasta market, by introducing microwaveable meals and more ready-made sauces.
His radio comments came after the interviewer asked him about allegations this week from Laura Boldrini, president of the lower house of parliament, that Italian advertising was full of gender stereotyping.
Barilla, whose ads often picture mothers serving their families at the dinner table, disagreed, and was then asked whether he would feature a gay family.
After saying he would not, he spoke at length about his belief in the “classic family”, adding however that he supported gay marriage, which is illegal in Italy, but not adoptions by gay couples.
In the U.S., gay marriage is now legal in 13 states and, unlike in Italy, the gay rights movement continues to build momentum and break down barriers.
“I’m Italian, I’m gay, I’m married legally to a man, I have three adopted children. I had Barilla pasta for dinner last night. Today, tomorrow and forever more I will choose another brand of pasta. Good bye Barilla! You lose!!!” David De Maria wrote on Barilla’s U.S. Facebook page.
Spaghetti is straight
The controversy generated several Internet satires. BuzzFeed featured a picture showing heterosexual couples lovingly eating pasta together with the words: “Spaghetti is straight”.
Another image posted widely on Twitter and Facebook showed the trademark blue Barilla pasta box with the letters “Bigotoni” on it, rather than “Rigatoni”.
While Barilla’s comments were condemned by most, others said the gay community was over-reacting.
“We may not agree with him but he is just expressing his opinion and doing it in a respectful way,” said JasonD79, who said he was gay, in reaction to a news story on Facebook. “He is not saying gays can’t work for them or anything, he is just saying he will not do an ad with a gay family.”
After its first apology, Barilla posted a second, more contrite version on its U.S. Facebook page several hours later that recognised that it may have offended some of its own employees.
“While we can’t undo recent remarks, we can apologise. To all of our friends, family, employees, and partners that we have hurt or offended, we are deeply sorry,” it read.
Only time will tell how much the boycott will hurt Barilla, which saw profit tumble 21 percent in 2012.
“In the short term, it is a threat to sales. What’s yet to be seen is, is there really going to be a long-term impact?” McCown said.