In recent days, controversy has flared over homophobic remarks made by Guido Barilla, the chairman of one of the world’s largest pasta companies. Asked whether he would ever use a gay family in Barilla’s advertising, which has for a long time capitalized on imagery of an idealised happy family alongside the slogan, “Where there’s Barilla, there’s home”, the chairman responded:
“I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others… I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
Asked how this might affect sales, Barilla said:
“Well, if they like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they don’t like it and they don’t like what we say they will eat another.”
The remarks were so casually upfront in their homophobia as to have the effect of seeming intentionally inflammatory – within hours, the Guardian reports, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter. As Barilla had suggested, consumers are in the position to vote with their dollars, and they were going to do just that.
But I recently came across an article by J. Bryan Lowder at Slate that approached the pasta PR fiasco in an interesting way I hadn’t thought about before, but which resonated with me. Lowder acknowledged that BGLTQ groups are understandably irate, but raised some reasons why the response itself might be concerning:
“I’m by no means the first person to say this, but being offended (or for that matter, flattered) by an entity whose sole purpose is to sell things, maybe to you or maybe to someone else, is to unavoidably endorse and enliven the insidious concept of corporate personhood. Barilla is not your enemy and Absolut is not your friend… It’s unfortunate, I guess, that [Guido Barilla] is behind the times on this matter, but the earnest anger I’m seeing online about that fact is perplexing. I mean, are you really so starved for approval that you need it to come packaged with pasta? … My concern with this increasingly common “the gays are for/against X corporation” trope is [simply that I] resent being told I should change my shopping list every time some old C-suite dude runs his out-of-touch mouth or offers to sponsor my next parade.”
I’ve wondered before how to measure my response to corporate gaffes like this, and this struck me as something I had felt before but never articulated. I don’t avoid Urban Outfitters because its CEO is homophobic – I avoid it because its products are sometimes actively gross (“Navajo panties” and “tranny” greeting cards, anyone?) and its clothes weirdly flimsy.
I think boycotting can be a powerful tool in creating change in the right circumstance, but as Lowder writes, “show me a company that’s actively hurting gay people, and then we can talk… if the issue is merely some disagreement over what a family looks like or whether Guido wants to cast us in his lame commercials, let’s not give him the energy or publicity.”
In any case, this is just one opinion, and I’m always looking to learn from how other people feel. Feel free to share your thoughts!