* Barilla said ads would "never" feature gay family
* Comment spread from radio to social media
* Impact on U.S. market unpredictable
* Barilla apologises, pledges to meet gay leaders
By Steve Scherer
ROME, Sept 27 When pasta king Guido Barilla
found himself pilloried on social media for saying he would
never use a gay family in his advertising, rival pasta maker
Buitoni was quick to capitalise.
A picture on its Facebook page of an open door looking out
onto a courtyard featured the caption: "At Buitoni's house,
there's a place for everyone."
It was a stark demonstration of the rising power of social
media. Barilla's comments to a medium-sized Italian radio
station on Wednesday quickly became a global public relations
disaster with a likely knock-on effect on sales.
The comments that he would "never" do an ad "with a
homosexual family" to a station that has barely more than 2
million daily listeners spread like wildfire on Twitter and
Facebook, sparking worldwide calls to boycott products by the
world's biggest pasta maker on Thursday.
The outcry will weigh on U.S. sales in the short term, and
Barilla's immediate response to the uproar was "muddled and
odd", Ashley McCown, a crisis communications expert at Solomon
McCown in Boston, told Reuters.
"In the U.S. people want to feel good about the things they
buy and who they buy them from," she said.
In a written statement on Thursday, Barilla said he was
sorry "if I offended some people".
Late on Friday the 55-year-old company chairman posted a
video on Facebook saying he respected everyone, "including gays
and their families".
Speaking English, the great-grandson of the man who founded
the privately owned Barilla company more than 130 years ago
pledged to meet "representatives" of those he offended.
"I have heard the countless reactions to my words in the
world which have depressed and saddened me. It is clear that I
have a lot to learn about the lively debate concerning the
evolution of the family," he said.
Seeking to boost sales outside of crisis-hit Italy, Barilla
has recently focused on expanding in the United States, its
second biggest pasta market, by introducing microwaveable meals
and more ready-made sauces.
Barilla's radio comments came after the interviewer asked
him about accusations this week from Laura Boldrini, president
of the lower house of parliament, that Italian advertising was
full of gender stereotyping.
Barilla, whose ads often picture mothers serving their
families at the dinner table, disagreed, and was then asked
whether he would feature a gay family.
After saying he would not, he spoke at length about his
belief in the "classic family", adding however that he supported
gay marriage, which is illegal in Italy, but not adoptions by
In the United States, gay marriage is legal in 13 states
and, unlike in Italy, the gay rights movement continues to build
momentum and break down barriers.
"I'm Italian, I'm gay, I'm married legally to a man, I have
three adopted children. I had Barilla pasta for dinner last
night. Today, tomorrow and forever more I will choose another
brand of pasta. Good bye Barilla! You lose!!!" David De Maria
wrote on Barilla's U.S. Facebook page.
SPAGHETTI IS STRAIGHT
The controversy generated Internet satires. BuzzFeed
featured a picture showing heterosexual couples lovingly eating
pasta together with the words: "Spaghetti is straight".
Another image posted widely on Twitter and Facebook showed
the trademark blue Barilla pasta box with the letters "Bigotoni"
on it, rather than "Rigatoni".
While Barilla's comments were condemned by most, others said
the gay community was over-reacting.
"We may not agree with him but he is just expressing his
opinion and doing it in a respectful way," said JasonD79, who
said he was gay, in reaction to a news story on Facebook. "He is
not saying gays can't work for them or anything, he is just
saying he will not do an ad with a gay family."
Only time will tell how much the boycott will hurt Barilla,
which saw profits tumble 21 percent in 2012.
"In the short term, it is a threat to sales. What's yet to
be seen is, is there really going to be a long-term impact?"