So a gay walks into the Barilla pasta aisle…

My Facebook stream blew up yesterday as my entire universe of progressive friends and family (as in, pretty much all of them), spread the news about the recent remarks of Barilla chairman, Guido Barilla, on an Italian radio program about his feelings on gay families in advertisements.

pasta love

Please let me know if you’ve seen a credit for this beautiful piece

The chairman stated “I would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family, not for lack  of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.”

He went on to say that while he is in favor of gay marriage, despite its illegality in Italy, he opposes adoption by gay parents because children without parents don’t deserve loving homes with loving couples with a profound commitment to one another and to the family unit.

No wait…he gave a different reason. Sorry about that.

That’s why you check Snopes and don’t just trust any crap you read on some blog.

(By the way, Original Snopes link via Liza Barry-Kessler who you should follow on Twitter. She’s one of my best sources for pretty much any news that I’m behind on and shouldn’t be.)

Now obviously this has brought out thousands of people to speak up on the Facebook page. Some rightfully angry:

barilla boycott on facebook

Some thoughtfully disappointed:

anti barilla sentiment on facebook

Some defiantly supportive:

pro barilla facebook post

Some supportive with arguments that are tough to defend these days

barilla pasta argument

Annnnd some who need lessons in critical thinking and debate.

ridiculous pro barilla post on facebook

Ah! The Internets. So much fun.

However, this is probably my favorite response I’ve seen, forgiving the typo:

barilla boycott

And I love seeing now how thoughtfulness is now overtaking the initial rage and passion that people have felt about this.

donate Barilla to food banks

This is the 21st century, and this is how marketing controversies play out in public. As we well know.

Of course I can’t help but grapple with my own feelings about this from a marketing perspective. I wrote on Liza’s Facebook page:

Bums me out. But…do you know how many brands will never feature gay couples in their ads? Let’s say, 98% of them. Those brands just don’t mention it on radio interviews; they only reject storyboards from their ad agencies.

I know this first-hand: It is hard for brands to promote progressive values that may incite controversy.  I know this from having presented ads featuring gay couples in very matter-of-fact situations and had clients–some from more progressive companies than you’d imagine–look at me like I had six heads, one of them possibly gay. (It was sporting a single earring in the right ear and singing Liza Minelli show tunes, I guess.)

I know this because one time, not so long ago, when I tried to cast a black woman in an ad–doing nothing particularly interesting–I was told by a client that “we’re just not ready for that yet.”

They went with a redhead instead. You know, for diversity sake.

I know this because way back in the dark ages, I had just finished the rough cut of an ad featuring Magic Johnson–the day he announced he was HIV positive. At the time, no one famous was HIV positive, especially not heterosexual sports heroes. In determining what to do with the ad, after some national publicity about it, we grappled with bomb scares and death threats at the agency for several weeks–from both sides. It was a harsh lesson.

The reality is that marketers are conservative by nature. Not conservative politically per se, but looking to offend the fewest people by running the most benign advertising that focus groups won’t ding.

For God’s sake, a totally sweet, benign Cheerios ad featuring a multicultural family garnered all sorts of controversy. I mean, this family is what America looks like now. There is absolutely nothing controversial about this, at least from my vantage point from Liberal Brooklyn, New York, America.

Cheerio's Multicultural Ad

Now, I am 100% supportive of voting with your wallets and supporting the companies you feel good about. I do it myself.

The challenge is,  what are we voting for exactly? Where do we draw the line?

Are we voting in response to a company’s public statements or a chairman’s personal ones? Are we voting against an online auction site that has no minorities or women in executive positions, even if they offer LGBT benefits? How about a clothing retailer that does great things for the environment and local business, but features half-naked, barely legal women posing like porn star in their ad? What about a major pharma company that’s been sued many times over for sexual discrimination, but whose products help keep your grandmother alive?

It’s brutal once you start breaking it down.

And, when you do make a decision about what to buy and what not to, then what? Publicly boycott? Write letters and sign petitions? Quietly support a competitor? Keep eating that fried chicken but feel really really bad about it?

(I have a liberal friend who can’t stop eating Chic-Fil-A and so every time she does, she makes an equal donation to Planned Parenthood. Instead of carbon credits to offset environmental violations, it’s like women’s credits. Brilliant.)

Years back, I refused to work on a piece of business at an ad agency where I was working, because I find the values of the founding chairman abhorrent and would hate to put one penny in his pocket that will go toward causes that make me physically ill. It created about a day of friction between me and our chairman before we hugged it out and he allowed me to move quietly onto automotive accounts which pollute the environment, or packaged goods brands that test on animals.

And I’m only being a little facetious.

See, here’s the thing: We have to pick our battles. Me as a marketer, and all of us as consumers. Unfortunately the entire universe of marketers is not run by Ben and Jerry, who changed “Chubby Hubby” to “Hubby Hubby” in support of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Vermont in 2009.

Of course lesbians everywhere were offended by the patriarchal decision.


What I said on Liza’s thread is true–the great majority companies simply don’t want to push cultural boundaries, promote a progressive agenda, or make waves whatsoever. So I salute those who do feature  and support all kinds of loving families: Ben + Jerry’s, IKEA, General Mills, JCPenney, Expedia, Unilever. And of course my old clients at Mistic and Snapple who were willing to approve the first ever ad featuring two gay women coming out to their parents. I will always be grateful to Ken Gilbert for pushing that campaign through as a marketing director and to Julie Bowen (yes that Julie Bowen) for playing “Liz” so beautifully and being so supportive of the effort–even after she became famous.

Barilla has since issued a corporate apology on their Facebook page:

At Barilla, we consider it our mission to treat our consumers and partners as our neighbors – with love and respect – and to deliver the very best products possible. We take this responsibility seriously and consider it a core part of who we are as a family-owned company. While we can’t undo recent remarks, we can apologize. To all of our friends, family, employees, and partners that we have hurt or offended, we are deeply sorry.

But is it true? Is it enough?

Is it enough for you?

I’m not sure if it’s enough for me. And I currently have 10 boxes of Barilla pasta in my pantry.

Cheerios | Love




41 thoughts on “So a gay walks into the Barilla pasta aisle…”

  1. Love this post, and you know which “enough” I care about the most? The one that has us all deciding that we will be more deliberate with all of our purchases. The enough that ignites a flame that will endure and move us past what’s easy and beyond to what is decent.

    That enough will benefit us all vastly more than the 45 cents you might save on the odd box of pasta.

    1. Move past what is easy and beyond to what is decent.

      That is so awesome, Amanda. Make a poster on Etsy and pin it.

  2. I love that you wrote this. Having the agency perspective is completely different and important in these conversations. We’ve turned down giant food companies who wanted to work with us because we weren’t comfortable putting their products in front of kids, even though our competitors show those ads every 2 minutes and on as many banner ads as they can fit on a screen. But, I couldn’t tell you what the factory conditions are for the clothing company we just did a campaign with. There’s a degree of due diligence that will drive you mad – or really make it impossible to do business with most large companies. I am proud of our internal code of ethics, and that we have stuck to it, but I know we will continually have very hard decisions to make as a revenue generating online company, and would never assume all of our decisions will be 100% awesome to everyone.

    1. Amazing points Rebecca, and thank you. I think we all just do our best we can to do what we think is right. It’s imperfect, but it’s something.

      I don’t think that living our values is an all or nothing proposition. That’s what makes it hard.

  3. So many good points in here. I agree that it’s impossible to do the degree of due diligence Rebecca refers to above. How far down the production chain must we go to satisfy our consciences? I think what’s so bad about the Barilla situation is that he was so overt about his position, so explicit. So now aligning with that brand becomes a more more public statement in support of its agenda. Many companies may share Barilla’s views, as you said, but the world just doesn’t know about it. Supporting those brands doesn’t make the statement we want to avoid, even if in reality it’s the same thing.

    1. Thanks for the PR pro perspective Gayle. I think that’s why it feels uncomfortable now for me to hold that box of linguini in my hand and serve it to my kids.

  4. This is the one that finally made two boycotts merge for me. Where do the boycotts end? Do we have to choose (before every single purchase decision) which issue is most important to us and how to we make those decisions?

    The head of the company (an Italian man who I am comfortable guessing is Catholic) said something awful publicly. Ronzoni immediately came out and said “we support all families,” but where’s the CEO of Ronzoni? Should we ask him his personal opinion on the matter?
    Here’s where the boycotts collide – Barilla has stated (publicly and in reply to me asking directly) that all of their products are and will be GMO Free. Ronzoni has yet to respond.

    I don’t eat at Chik-Fil-A anymore and I won’t give the Walton family my money, but where does it end? Someone posted a list of all the companies the Koch brothers have their hands in so we could boycott. OMG, have you seen the list? It now seems that the only way to offend no one is to be a backyard organic farmer whose entire world is self-sustainable. And, well, that’s just not sustainable.

    Sorry for the novel, I needed to get that out.

    1. I agree completely, no novel necessary.

      And I do avoid all the Koch brothers companies whenever possible. Not sure it’s in my power to eliminate Lycra completely, but I did give up Vanity Fair napkins. That was hard.

    2. Yes, that is often the challenge for me too. What do you do when a company is doing something good on the one hand and something awful on the other hand? Obviously, if there is a company that is doing all right, I’ll shift in their direction. But GMOs + supporting all families vs. no GMOs and supporting only “traditional” families. I don’t like either of those much.

  5. I don’t do a lot of checking up on the products I buy – I generally just buy what I like. But when a company or company owner or officer is so in-your-face intolerant, I think it’s important to be vocal and say “No, that’s not OK.” It’s not so much about the product (I buy one of their competitors anyway), but about speaking up and letting them know that people are listening.

  6. I have to wonder who asked the guy this question? I mean really who asks the pasta guy what he thinks of gay marriage? I don’t know, sometimes I think we’re just setting them up to fail. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and obviously mr pasta guy is full of opinions. I don’t see how it has anything to do with pasta. Maybe he is just be being stupid and answered a question without thinking and maybe he flat out decided to just announce that he’s anti-gay. I will admit I haven’t read all the things in regards to it, because honestly I just don’t have the time.

    I believe in equality. I believe that everyone should be allowed to marry who they love. I FULLY believe that any couple who wants a kid and wants to adopt should be able to, or a single person, or whoever. But I also believe that one guy may not really speak for all the pasta people. Sometimes pasta is just pasta and one dude was asked the wrong question at the wrong time.

    I remember the chick-fil-a boycott. Because I truly believe those people as a whole believe what they said. So we don’t go to Chick-fil-a. The reality though, is that I can’t keep up. I don’t know who I’m supposed to boycott today and I don’t have the time or energy to keep up. I’m a single mom with three kids and a full time job. My life is full and crazy and I’m still watching TV shows that came on at Christmas. I haven’t read a book in forever and I honestly can’t keep up with the Internet and what is going on in the world. I’ll likely forget all of this before the next time I buy pasta and end up buying the same kind I always do.

  7. My initial thought about the interview was that: sure he’s a troglodyte but at least he’ll inadvertently shine light on the problem. I was totally wrong. You are the one who shines the light. Bravo.

  8. A similar conversation happened this week in Canada (and got a fair bit of coverage in the US as well) when a Canadian author, who also teaches at the University of Toronto, gave an interview where he said he does not teach books by women, by Canadians, by homosexuals, by Chinese, etc. He just teaches books by real heterosexual American and Russian men. The fact that he stated his bias and did so with such arrogance caused outrage (I was outraged, others were outraged). But, people also rightly noted that there are many, many, many other middle aged white men teaching in institutions of higher learning who have similar (or different) biases and just never say so out loud.

    I try to call out and avoid buying from companies that I think are causing significant harm. Sometimes that can be through discrimination, sometimes it is through deceptive marketing, sometimes environmental damage, human rights or labour abuses. I also try to celebrate and support companies that do the right thing. That meant that much of our summer clothing budget this year went to Tommy Hilfiger instead of Old Navy/Gap/Banana Republic, because of research I did on the situation in Bangladesh.

    The more I learn, the more conscious I am in my purchasing decisions. There are a couple of companies that I boycott outright (Nestle has been on that list for a long time and Walmart recently made its way from my “avoid” list to my “boycott” list). There are other companies that I try to avoid, looking for better alternatives whenever possible. There are a whole lot of companies that I don’t know much about (good or bad), but I try to learn more all the time. Then there are companies that I celebrate, that I purposely and happily shop at, and whose praises I sing from rooftops and social media platforms.

    It’s an ongoing process, but one that I think is important if we are to be conscious consumers.

  9. This is a great post that gives important perspective on this topic. I say consumers get to use their purchasing power where they choose. I think this is an interesting trend (i.e. Russian Vodka being poured out). I do tend to prefer buying products from companies whose values I relate to (which is equality for all btw)…I also think purchasing power should be used to give feedback for companies that use ingredients I prefer NOT to serve my kids… Just look at Yoplait’s recent campaign saying that consumers shared over social media to “take out the high fructose corn syrup” – so they did. I did not share those thoughts online but just stopped buying the yogurt. After seeing the new campaign saying “we heard you”, I went out and bought some Yoplait to say “bravo”..

  10. “I know this because one time, not so long ago, when I tried to cast a black woman in an ad–doing nothing particularly interesting–I was told by a client that “we’re just not ready for that yet.””

    No one has told you the different way in which we (black women) drink coffee or walk to the mailbox or put on pants? Huh.

  11. Love this post. While definitely saddened by this man’s statements, its really nice to read a thoughtful, calmly written view on the subject.

    Half the time I literally have to unplug for a few days, so the guilt of allowing my money to line the pockets of assholes because I’m too broke to shop somewhere else doesn’t rip me to shreds.

    My food budget is strained enough with purchasing as much organic and non allergenic products I can find, so I buy my groceries in a town twenty minutes away. Its too expensive to shop ANYWHERE in my small hick-town. By doing so, my community loses out on tax dollars. That sucks- but its what i can afford. “What i can afford” also means those hard earned dollars end up buying towels, socks and toys at the disgustingly super-affordable Walmart. Ugh.

    I guess its a good thing i already buy the super cheap not- Barilla store brand pasta. That’ll teach em!

    1. What’s also hard is that when you spend less at a super “affordable” store like that, you end up paying in other ways: job are exported, companies run out of business (the ones they sell; not just the competitors), our tax dollars provide insurance for their employees since the corporation finds loopholes to pass that burden onto us. But that’s a whole other story. And oh look! Here it is:

  12. I love the idea of putting your money where your mouth is. Going grocery shopping later today and will be mindful. It may be a small gesture, but I feel like I’m doing something good.

  13. For some reason this reminds me of when, in the 90’s, I was working at WABC, and Sam Champion, then the local weather guy, wanted to come out publicly as a gay man. He felt that he could help the cause by coming out. And management said NO in no uncertain terms.

    Though I don’t think there was an explicit threat of dismissal, they basically told him that little old ladies in NJ and CT watched him because they loved him — and they might not love him any more if they knew.

    Well, Sam kept his mouth shut and went on to GMA and about the biggest job a weatherman can get. He also recently got married…to a man – something they celebrated and talked about openly, and (terrifically) nonchalantly on the show. ON THE NUMBER ONE MORNING SHOW IN AMERICA.

    My point is, Sam, to many, was seen as a sell out for a while. He didn’t come out to advance his career. But really, what he did, was wait until the time was right. And by waiting, his comfort and openness about his sexuality impacted far more people than it would have if he had just been a local weatherman (albeit in a huge market), who then lost his job.

    My point is, we all make decisions based on lots of things. And we don’t know how those will turn out? Do we not buy the pasta? Do we not shop at Anthropologie? (Thanks, Rebecca, for pointing out that the guy who owns it is a right-wing nut case). And do people lose their jobs because of it? Or do the companies change? Who knows?

    I don’t know what I’ll do about the pasta, but I do know that I’ll speak out. And I hope that one day, all that speaking out will lead to clear skies for everyone.

  14. My 2nd of 3 sons is in his 3rd year of cub scouts (the oldest got all the way through cub scouts but stopped before becoming a Boy Scout). I have always been uncomfortable with the BSA ban on homosexual troop leaders (even though they lifted the ban on homosexual scouts), but I felt that the benefits of boy scouts for my sons outweighed the downside. One of my son’s friends who has 2 moms is in scouts with him.

    Now, my son has become good friends with another boy who has 2 moms, and his moms will not allow him to join the boy scouts. I explained their reasons to my son and felt like a huge hypocrite. It was hard for me to tell him that I completely agree with their position and “wouldn’t Jack’s mom make a great scout leader?” but then send him off to his scout meeting.

  15. We can only do as best we can until we can do better. You’re so right that we don’t know the biases of 90% of the companies with which we engage. But as one of your commenters pointed out: Blithely throwing it out there is *asking* for a response. Now we know. Now we need to choose how much we care. And in this case he’s most definitely speaking explicitly for the BRAND and its values, not just himself. That’s what ADVERTISING is.

    Listen, none of is probably *capable* of living our values 100% when we spend our money. I spent years as a vegetarian before I went vegan. Even though philosophically I knew I wanted to be vegan. I did as best I could, until I could do better. Even now, though, I’m positive there is impact in some of my choices that I would be unhappy about. Sure, no leather car seats, but what’s in those tires, you know?

    But some choices are made easy for us. Some companies put their stands out there for all to see. And when those companies make something that’s pretty damn easy to replace? They are gift-wrapping the opportunity to do something about it. Something as simple as switching.

  16. This is, as always, a terrific and useful perspective. Thank you, Liz. And you’ve inspired so many thoughts that I think I need to write a longer post on my blog in addition to the long ass comment I’m about to leave.

    As a former client marketer let me add a bit of additional insight to your sad experience: “I know this because one time, not so long ago, when I tried to cast a black woman in an ad–doing nothing particularly interesting–I was told by a client that ‘we’re just not ready for that yet.'”

    At the packaged goods foods companies I worked for the one thing that would top the perpetual by far number one question to the 800 lines (is the product gluten free?) would be complaints (horrifyingly ugly) about the addition of Spanish language to packages or the casting of Black or gay people in commercials. I’m still astounded by the tsunami of hate that flowed after airing commercials featuring Savion Glover (extra hateful because he has dreadlocks) and Carson Kressley. This is in the olden days of the mid-2000’s. Sigh. And that’s one of the reasons why clients are not ready for that yet.

    In general, consumers are willing to let brands go much further than the conservative marketers are willing but too often the hateful voices drown them out. That’s why I think, in addition to voting with our wallets, speaking out on blogs and in social media to let companies know what we do value is useful. That and then working to effect systemic change.

    1. Oh God Maria, we could trade notes one day.

      Like the major (MAJOR) retailer that rejected a line of compliation CDs because the love song CD featured album art of a black couple kissing. Oh noes.

      The art director had to replace it with a white couple which was somehow less “offensive?”

  17. Will I think twice about Barilla? Yep.

    I’m quite weary of all the extremes, though. A thoughtful discussion of differences is never achieved. Any statement that anyone makes on either side of pretty much any controversial issue is immediately amplified to the point of damage. No one will stop yelling long enough to actually HEAR. Listening doesn’t happen. More divide. More anger. More demonizing. No peace.

    I would like my place in the world to be the person who scoots over at the table and gives someone left out a spot. There’s room.

  18. Another Barilla buyer who’ll be investigating other options, just as I’ve done with meat (on the rare occasions I eat it now – you saw me eat more meat in one weekend than I usually eat in two months).

    With the exception of Chick-Fil-A, which we haven’t patronized in years, my consistency could use some work. Perhaps pasta will be another area in which we make future purchasing decisions based primarily on principle.

  19. This reminds me of when I used to go to Curves, and then I found out they spent lots of money on “pro-life” causes with which I disagree. Ethically, I wondered how much of it was really my business. If they provided me with the service I was paying for, what right did I have to tell them how to spend that money when it was no longer mine? Do I need to grill the guy at the bakery next to make sure he’s not donating to things I don’t like? Should it matter what my political or religious beliefs are to the people who buy things from my store as long as I treat them fairly and well? If I were to delve deeply enough, I’m sure there things I disagree strongly about with most of the people I do business with. How far down the rabbit hole do we go?

    There are many complicated elements to consider. Thankfully for me continuing to not buy Barilla pasta will be an easy choice to make. Donating to Planned Parenthood eased my mind about paying money to Curves. But I wonder with so many of my purchasing decisions to what (probably huge) degree ignorance is bliss.

  20. Not buying Barilla may not seem like much, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something to support my many friends in same sex marriages and their families. It’s a small act, but it’s from the place in my heart that says I am so sick of the people I love having to fight to be seen as just a family. They are just a family.

  21. This is such a great description of this issue, which I really NEEDED since I was out of the country and ignoring the news/internets. Barilla’s apology rings true to me. They didn’t apologize for their values or change their statement, they just said they were sorry they offended people. I have said ignorant things enough times to believe that they are, indeed, sorry.

    I had a similar decision to make last year when I found out my favorite family-owned, super kid-friendly, organic local-beef serving farm-cum-inn was sued for refusing to have a wedding reception for a gay couple. I won’t tolerate that kind of descriminiation, but otherwise, I love that place! I like the inkeepers (who I’ve hung out with by the outdoor bonfire in the snow….) and their “product” is rare. I don’t think it’ll change the world for the better or their views if their business shuts down.

    And now I need to go look at the list of companies supported by the Koch brothers….argh…..

  22. One thing I’ll give them credit for, is that the apology did not say, “If we have offended anyone, we apologize”. The fake apology that makes it your fault for being offended is so 2012.

    I want to do the right thing. I want to make purchases based on my beliefs. I don’t buy minute maid because of Anita Bryant, and how many years has that been? But I have bought Nestle chocolate chips if they’re on sale, and they discourage breastfeeding, right? It’s so tiring to have to do this stuff. To have to keep up with the opinions and policies of companies we deal with on an everyday basis. To have to give up a pasta brand that we enjoy. And if the apology isn’t enough…what if Barilla fires the chairman? What if they get someone more progressive in? Would it be more comfortable to buy the pasta then? What if we find out that the chairman got a fabulous severance? Does that change anything? It’s so tiring.

    I will boycott Barilla, not because I think they will notice, but because it will make me feel a little better and like I am not consciously supporting a company that doesn’t value my friends. But in doing so, will I accidentally purchase pasta from another company that is no better? How much of this, as you said, is just publicity? Most marketers feel the same way about their advertizing, because they don’t want to offend ANYONE.

  23. Teaching moments for the next generation – “see that idiot, I mean person, who is _________ (racist, homophobic, antiquated – fill in the blank), that is such a narrow view of the world we live in because _______. ”

    Of course, boycott and vet as much as possible BUT as you bring up – so much goes on beyond the scenes, it is impossible to catch it all. SO, we just have to show our children and future generations how to act.

    Of course, the first way to show them this – is to role model….

  24. Speaking of companies to consider avoiding – have you heard about Hobby Lobby?


  25. I would like to pose a question. There are many people working for barilla pasta probably some are gay, so if we boycott Barilla pasta, is this really helping strengthen our cause?

    PS. I am not at all anti-gay

    1. Good question Beth. I always want to write to Randy Cohen at times like these since he would probably have the best answer. (He used to write the Ethicist column for the NY Times Magazine.)

      I guess I’d answer by asking you back: what is the cause, exactly? If it’s creating less discrimination in business and society overall, then this is a good way to voice dissatisfaction with discriminatory marketing policies and work toward change. If the cause is preserving jobs for individuals who may be gay, then we might go about it differently.

      My own feeling is that people vote with their pocketbooks every day for all kinds of reasons. We have the right (and some might feel, the obligation) to support those companies with whom we feel ethically or otherwise aligned. Boycotts or mass media criticism that impact a company can indeed hurt individual employees, whatever their sexuality, in the short term. Even if it may help them in the long term. Change rarely comes without a price, unfortunately.

      And then there’s the converse: if we support a competitive brand that honors all their employees equally, actively recruits a diverse employee base, and promotes those values publically, then aren’t we helping more people than just those employees?

      Which makes me think, if I were a competitor with progressive values, I’d be recruiting the crap out of Barilla right now.

      (Sorry so wordy. Randy would have nailed it in like 6 words.)

Comments are closed.