Will the Barilla CEO's anti-gay remarks hurt the pasta company?
Barilla pasta has certainly found a way to stir the pot. The popular but formerly innocuous Italian pasta manufacturer has sparked outrage from gay rights supporters after its chairman, Guido Barilla, told Italy's Radio 24 he only wants heterosexual, or "classic," families in his commercial:
I would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family, not for a lack of respect but because we don't agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role. [Reuters]
He also added that "if they [gays and lesbians] like our pasta and our message they will eat it; if they don't like what we say, they will eat another."
Although Barilla has somewhat apologized, his comments devaluing homosexual families (not to mention relegating women to the kitchen) have sparked protests and boycotts. Aurelio Mancuso, president of gay rights group Equality Italia, told Italian news agency ANSA, "We accept his invitation not to eat his pasta." Hashtags #boicottabarilla and #boycottbarilla trended on Twitter, and Barilla's Facebok page was filled with angry renunciations of the product, including "Be, Bye Barilla," and "My heterosexual wife and I just quit buying your products – forever."
Yet, despite the backlash and personal vows of boycotts, will Barilla really be hurt by its chairman's comments? It's unclear exactly how much companies win or lose in taking a negative stance on gay rights.
One of the most famous cases of homophobic remarks from a major company head came from Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, who said, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'" He also proudly stated that Chick-fil-A donated heavily to anti-same-sex-marriage groups.
Almost immediately following Cathy's comments, Chick-fil-A's popularity plummeted. A day before his remarks were published, the company's YouGov BrandIndex's score was 65, but four days later it was 47, and 10 days later it was 39. Even in the South, its score fell from 80 to 44.
However, Chick-fil-A's total 2012 sales ultimately showed the fast food chain was unscathed, even though its popularity had, at least at some point, fallen. It racked up $4.6 billion in sales, up 14 percent from the previous year. Chick-fil-A also opened up 96 new franchises, four more than in 2011.
At the same time, though, with a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality, many marketing experts say it can only help a company to come out in support of gay rights.
Dan Zak at the Washington Post said the worst thing that could happen when a company comes out in support of gay rights is a "denouncement from a special interest group," while the best thing is "an army of people sends your product around the Internet, and your century-old brand suddenly seems cutting edge."
A good example of this theory in action is Oreo's rainbow-filled cookie for last year's Pride month. Lauren Kelley at Salon wrote that the move by Oreo (which is owned by Kraft) "got a lot of people who might not ordinarily be inclined to shill for one of the largest food corporations in the world to declare their love for Kraft products all over social media."
Moreover, the estimated consumer spending of the gay and lesbian community rings in at $900 billion. Thus, as Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania told CNBC, "Why send messages that may alienate that market?