Inside Barilla SpA's New Plant For Italian Pasta Manufacturing
Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A public relations disaster for Italy-based pasta maker Barilla may be cooling off. Six weeks after CEO Guido Barilla's fumbling anti-gay comments on Italian radio, his company is acting decisively.

After holding discussions with gay groups in Italy and the U.S., the world's largest pasta-maker announced that it has formed a diversity board, appointed a chief diversity officer, and agreed to put same-sex families in its advertisements.

This is a 180-degree turn on wet noodles. On Sept. 25, Barilla, 55, started a firestorm with his radio comments: "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."

It didn't matter that, elsewhere in the interview, he said that he supported same-sex marriage. Gay groups and their supporters called for boycotts because of CEO Barilla's clumsy ousting of gay families from company marketing.

With Barilla net profits down 20 percent last year, the company could hardly afford the CEO's al dente foot in its mouth.

Apologies Made It Worse

Barilla acted in the next two days with two press releases and a Facebook (FB) video. Each contained profuse apologies, but sometimes stretched to the absurd.

Barilla couldn't seriously mean it had "the utmost respect for anyone, without distinction of any kind." Wouldn't a valid distinction exist for an incompetent pasta maker or pasta thief?

Despite the releases' further comments about love and respect and "everyone's right to express themselves," Barilla missed the point. Boycott calls came because he said he wouldn't feature same-sex couples in his advertisements. They persisted until now, when the company addressed the ad issue.

Insular Peninsula

According to the company, it doesn't operate out of the most cosmopolitan region. A company spokesperson pointed out that Parma, Italy, the location of the company's worldwide headquarters, is an even more insular city in a "very insular country."

ITALY-FOOD-BARILLA-GUIDO BARILLA
Gabriel Bouys, AFP/Getty ImagesBarilla CEO Guido Barilla
That might explain Barilla's old-fashioned advertising, with women, in the CEO's words, in a "classic family." After all, Italy may have the ninth largest GDP in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but it doesn't make the list of the top 10 countries where men come close to women in the hours they spend on chores.

Now, CEO Barilla tells Reuters that, after meeting with U.S. and Italian gay and lesbian groups, "The meetings have helped open our eyes and ears to the evolution taking place in the world outside Parma," and, "We are already working on new advertising concepts that will be much more open and much more inclusive."

Behind the Business Times

Barilla's stance stood at one extreme on advertising, but LGBT families are far from routine in mainstream advertising in the U.S., pasta maker's second largest market. Mike Lescarbeau of the Carmichael Lynch ad agency told Minnesota Public Radio that ads follow cultural changes; they don't lead them.

In that same piece, Bob Witeck, who works with Fortune 500 companies to market to LGBT consumers, noted that, "When same-sex couples are incorporated into a strategy, they're almost invariably focused in channels where there's a higher proportion of gay people seeing them." He compared this to pharmaceutical companies spending marketing dollars on TV shows most likely to attract older viewers.

Still, companies have come a long way from when bomb threats to its stores caused Ikea to pull ads showing a gay couple shopping for a dining room table. Last year, when the American Family Council's One Million Moms project launched a boycott after JCPenney (JCP) hired Ellen DeGeneres as it spokesperson, the retailer responded with Father's Day ads featuring a real-life male couple and their two children.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

Today, Barilla will have a diversity and inclusion board, and a chief diversity officer. It will participate in the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, a rating of corporate policies relating to LBGT employees.
These efforts will cover not only sexual orientation, but also, the firm says, gender equality and disability rights.

But the change in ad strategy may be most meaningful to people beyond the company itself.

Judging by the way the world works, Barilla's future ads will be targeted where LGBT consumers are most likely to see them. They will likely walk a careful line between bad publicity that threatens sales, and widely distributed ads that may increase sales to some, but lose business from others.

Ironically, the negative publicity barrage may unwittingly have brought more attention to the company's change than it would have were the moves made, say, pre-emptively. If noticed enough, the bad now can make the later good appear better.

No one ever said business is easy. Barilla's CEO has certainly learned that. To his credit, he changed course dramatically in a mere six weeks. Whatever the reasons, Barilla's move is faster and more dramatic than most people -- except politicians -- can make.

Now critics will see whether Barilla -- the man and the company -- have not only thrown pasta to the wall, but if it sticks.

Tom Jacobs is Lead Advisor for Motley Fool Special Ops, a premium investment service concentrating on special situations such as spinoffs. Follow him @TomJacobsInvest. Tom has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.


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184 Comments

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hartbrkr8285

It's pasta people, eat it or don't. Company executive's need to learn to keep their mouths shut and stay out of the personal people issues. It will never go right no matter what side of the fence they are on, with any subject matter. So he caved in to the Gay Rights Movement, now he will be boycotted by the Anti-Gay Groups. A no win situation. Make your product, sell your product and be quite. If you had never brought up the fact that you would not use gay people in commercials I doubt many people would have noticed . I know I never thought about it, mainly because when commercials come on, I , A: tune them out. B: tune them out and make a dash for the bathroom. C: tune them out and make a dash for the kitchen. and D: All of the above.

November 09 2013 at 7:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sweetdreams7554

LGBT...the newest terrorist group! My way or no way...BS!

November 09 2013 at 6:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sweetdreams7554's comment
Frankie

Social Conservatives = Americas Taliban!

November 23 2013 at 1:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
bronxbombrs3

I hope gay people realize that he's not really sorry. He only said he's sorry because he wants their money. So gays, should still boycott Barilla. I on the other hand will boycott Barilla because he's a coward and bent over for the gay people.

November 08 2013 at 8:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ElectricXebra5

Sorry, Never buying your pasta again!

November 08 2013 at 7:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rsaisa

He is a real coward to let himself and company be bullyed for speaker his opinion. Last week was the last time this family will be buying his product!

November 08 2013 at 6:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ROBERT W SELF

I guess I will quit buying it now.

November 08 2013 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
m4lucky

are women the only people making pasta? don't men make pasta too? enough with the traditional/ fundamental role of women. that's sexism!

November 08 2013 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to m4lucky's comment
willypfistergash

In a traditional Italian household, you don\'t think this applies? So if it were a lesbain couple, would you still be outraged?

November 08 2013 at 1:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jef

What ever the reason?? Even Barrlia's attempt at new lower prices couldn't attract cusomers at the market,so they now say "ohhh ummm we were wrong, but NOW we like all family's" hahaha Funny how people's minds are changed when it comes down to 'their' dollar.Knock them,mock them,dislike them,but it appears once again gay people and supporters of equal fairness have now shown Barrlia and other companys before and to come how much it costs for standing in judgement!!!

November 08 2013 at 5:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jef's comment
willypfistergash

What is unfair about not having actors portray gay couples in the advertising of grocery products?

November 08 2013 at 1:48 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
dentiom03

I'm loyal to Barilla products and I always will be. The man is entitled to his opinion though he could have used a little more tact.

November 08 2013 at 5:49 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
JOSEPH G MATTERA

TOO BAD THEY CAVED............

November 08 2013 at 5:33 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply