Boycotting pasta is not something Italians take lightly. But when the head of Italy’s popular Barilla pasta, which is the world’s largest producer and exporter of the Italian staple, told a provocative radio program that he would never consider using a gay couple to advertise his pasta products, gay rights activists, politicians, and consumers vowed to boycott the products. “I would never feature a gay couple in our advertisements,” Guido Barilla said to Italy’s Radio24. He said it was OK if gays “like our pasta” and “our communication” referring to the brand’s traditional family-centric marketing. “Otherwise, they can eat another pasta. You can’t always please everyone.” Barilla later added insult to injury by explaining that what he meant was that their company ads wanted to reinforce the role of women as mothers, caregivers, and the nutritional head of household.
Barilla’s comments were met with scorn and indignation among gay rights activists, women’s equality advocates and parliamentarians who have been lobbying to introduce a string of anti-homophobic and anti-sexist measures in recent weeks. Italy has one of Europe’s worst track records for sexist advertising and homophobic hate crimes. Nearly 1,000 cases of verbal and physical aggression against gay and lesbian people are reported each year, according to Italy’s Gay Helpline. In the last four years, 20 transsexuals have been killed in Italy, according to the group Transgender Europe.
The Italian parliament has been campaigning to make overtly sexist advertising taboo. In fact, Barilla’s comments came in response to criticism that his company’s marketing campaign almost always showed a man and children sitting at the table with a woman serving them. Earlier this week, the president of the House of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, told parliament that she was tired of seeing stereotypes reinforced in mainstream advertising. “I always ask myself, would these ads run in other countries? The answer is no, absolutely no,” she said. “It is not acceptable to always see an ad with the father and children always sitting at the table and the mother serving them.”
Barilla shot back that their family business, now in its fourth generation, was defending the traditional mother-father family. A spokesperson for Barilla told The Daily Beast that the media was sensationalizing the comments, and passed on a prepared statement: “I apologize if my words have generated controversy or misunderstanding or if they hurt anyone’s sensitivity.”
Barilla’s remarks caused a Twitter frenzy under the hashtag #biocottabarilla or boycott Barilla, which was still trending in Italy on Friday morning. There were also reports of pasta aisles being vandalized in grocery stores in Bologna, considered the most gay-friendly city in Italy. Barilla agreed to meet with gay rights advocates to try to calm the controversy, but the damage to the company could be worse than a gluten-allergy epidemic. “We need to boycott any company that undermines equality,” Alessandro Zan, a parliamentarian for the left-wing SEL (Sinestra Ecologia Liberta) party told The Daily Beast. “But we also need to educate the public who agree with Barilla’s sentiment.”
The pasta chief’s comments did not offend everyone. Maria Rita Munizzi, head of the Italian parents movement MOIGE, which tends towards keeping mothers in the kitchen and out of the workplace, showed her solidarity with Barilla’s focus on tradition. “We appreciate the choice to showcase his products with the natural family,” she said in a statement.
Barilla stopped short of apologizing for using women in subservient roles in the company’s marketing. “Our focus is on the traditional family,” he said. In the meantime other Italian pasta makers found an opportunity for some creative reverse marketing. Buitoni pasta quickly sent out an official statement via Facebook, “At Buitoni’s house, there’s a place for everyone.” Another leading pasta and bread producer Misura went a step further to a produce a quick spot with gay and heterosexual couple sharing a plate of cookies. “Every family is different and that’s precisely why we like you,” the ad said.
Aurelio Mancuso, the president of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Italia who instigated the Barilla boycott, said he welcomed the invitation by Barilla not to eat their pasta. “No one has ever asked Barilla to do a spot with a gay family,” he said in a recorded interview with Corriere Della Sera posted on the organization’s website. “But if you think like he does, that if you don’t agree, you can just eat another type of pasta, that’s a dangerous message. It’s the tone of his message, that gay families are not important in the market, and that they don’t count, that is more troubling.”