Social media and social protest increasingly go hand in hand, as Guido Barilla, the chairman of the Italian pasta company that bears his family name, found out this week, to his dismay.
Barilla, on September 25, said on an Italian radio program that his company would never feature a gay couple in its advertising.
“I would never do an ad with a homosexual family,” he said. “If the gays don’t like it they can go and eat another brand. For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the fundamental values of the company.”
Barilla, having declared that gay families can’t be “sacred,” then said that gay couples shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children. “I have no respect for adoption by gay families because this concerns a person who is not able to choose.” (As if any kid chose his or her parents.)
The chairman of the world’s leading pasta manufacturer – the company has nearly half the Italian pasta market and almost one-quarter of the American — evidently didn’t anticipate a backlash to his remarks. Views like Barilla’s, though bigoted and out of touch, are still all too common in Italy. A few years ago, when then-Premier Silvio Berlusconi was criticized for his libertinism, he replied, “At least I’m not a fag.” If Italy’s leader could casually toss off an anti-gay remark, no one should be too surprised that a lesser mortal like Guido Barilla would follow suit.
But instead of being laughed off or dismissed, Barilla’s comments set off an immediate and intense backlash on social media. Bloggers and news sites worldwide denounced the macaroni magnate’s bigotry.
And then, taking Barilla up on his challenge to “go eat another brand” of pasta, Aurelio Mancuso, chairman of the gay rights group Equality Italia, said, “Accepting the invitation of Barilla’s owner to not eat his pasta, we are launching a boycott campaign against all his products.”
Soon enough, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter. The Barilla chairman went into damage control mode, saying that he was sorry if his remarks had offended anyone. He claimed that during the radio interview he had only been trying to emphasize the “central role” of women in families. (The interview began with a journalist asking Barilla what he thought of an Italian woman politician’s criticism of sexist TV advertising.) Apparently, to Guido Barilla, lesbians aren’t women.
So with his apology, Barilla dug himself even deeper, adding sexism to homophobia.
Barilla US, the company’s American division, issued an apology on Facebook, saying, “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.”
The American branch of Barilla obviously is better at public relations than the parent company’s maladroit Signor Barilla. But that hasn’t ended the calls for a boycott, which have spread beyond Italy, or the criticism of Barilla’s CEO.
Dario Fo, Italy’s best-known living playwright (he won the Nobel Prize in 1997), and also an actor and political activist, sent a remarkable open letter to Guido Barilla. Fo reminded Barilla that in the 1950s Fo wrote and appeared in the company’s first TV advertisements, when Guido’s father, Pietro, “a person full of creativity and intelligence,” headed the company. Fo observed that those ads spoke about “products that have become symbols of Italy and all Italians all, in our homes and in the world. Pasta above all is synonymous with Italy, of home and family. For all.”
“Your company,” he said, “is Italy, in our country and around the world. An Italy that is also made of unmarried couples, extended families, families with homosexual and transgender parents.”
“Today,” he continued, “our nation is made up of many families united only by the love of those within them. Love that cannot discriminate, that does not have boundaries – and love, throughout the world, can be between a man and a woman, two women, and two men.”
Fo also suggested to Barilla that he drop the anti-gay polemics and ensure that future ad campaigns depict families “in their varied and marvelous forms in our times.”
If Fo gently chastised Barilla, other critics were less diplomatic. Nicola “Nichi” Vendola, the openly gay president of Italy’s Puglia region, blasted Barilla for perpetuating stereotypes “of Italy at its worst.”
The leftist daily Il Manifesto also weighed in. After listing some popular pasta products, the paper sarcastically remarked, “From today on, they will be only for straights if they have the Barilla brand.” Then, after quoting slogans from the company’s past ad campaigns –“Where there’s Barilla, there’s home,” “A sea of love” and “this is everybody’s pasta” — the editorialist concluded with a phrase familiar to Americans, and especially Italian Americans — “Forget about it.”
In America, the Italian American gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile, famous for having popularized “outing,” said, Barilla’s pasta “may be the No. 1 pasta in the world, but it appears he leads the insular life that many Italian straight men lead — yes, including educated, wealthy men — keeping women in their place and dismissing gays.” Jon Avrosis of America Blog noted the inadequacy of Barilla’s apologies and championed the boycott.
As Dario Fo and others pointed out, the image of “the Italian family” that Guido Barilla upholds — the man as father and head of the household, the woman as mother and housewife, with adoring and obedient bambini – doesn’t reflect the reality of contemporary Italy. Most women work (and in the ongoing economic crisis, they sometimes are a family’s only breadwinner), heterosexual couples increasingly cohabit without a marriage license, and gays, lesbians and transgenders are more prominent in public life than before – even though Italy lags far behind most of western Europe when it comes to protecting the rights of sexual minorities.
But the Barilla pasta polemics have raised an issue other than Guido Barilla’s cluelessness. Barilla is Italy’s leading brand, but that may be due more to the success of its advertising (and distribution) than the quality of the product itself. There are certainly better brands of pasta in Italy – Abruzzo’s De Cecco and Naples’ Setaro and Garofalo brands come to mind. And most Barilla pasta sold in North America is made in the U.S., not Italy. To pasta aficionados – including this writer — it has a quality that Italians call “tutto industriale,” i.e., an industrial product of little distinction.
And speaking of Garofalo, that company, based in Naples, issued a quite brilliant response to Barilla – an ad that proclaimed, “We don’t care who you do it with – as long as you do it al dente.”