If Betty Crocker Can Feature Gay People, Why Can't Barilla?

Policy of Pasta Company Chairman Runs Counter to Inclusiveness Trend in Advertising

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As Italian pasta marketer Barilla was dealing with backlash Thursday over Chairman Guido Barilla's comment that he opposes using gay families in ads, competitor Buitoni USA served up this simple message on its Facebook page: "A remarkable dish can bring people together," adding this quote from the late legendary food writer James Beard, who also happened to be gay: "Food is our common ground, a universal experience."

Buitoni's Facebook post
Buitoni's Facebook post

The post from Buitoni, which is owned by Nestle, "is not a reaction or laden with any secret message. It's just promoting our 'good food, good life' philosophy," according to a Nestle spokesman. "We don't comment on our competitors," the company said when asked about the Barilla situation. But on Friday morning the brand appeared to go directly after its competitor with a Facebook post carrying the message "Pasta for all" and gender symbols made out of pasta.

Buitoni's approach points to the larger trend of family food brands embracing more-inclusive messaging. Mr. Barilla's comment to an Italian radio station that "I would never do [a commercial] with a homosexual family" seems to run counter to that. He said that his views are not from a "lack of respect but because we don't agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role," according to a report from Reuters.

But in the U.S., even the most classic of brands in Middle America have made the calculation that it pays to embrace non-traditional families. Consider General Mills-owned Betty Crocker, which this summer hosted same-sex couples in Minnesota for a wedding cake tasting, and then publicized the event on its corporate blog, while gaining plenty of local media attention.

Earlier in the year, Cheerios, also owned by General Mills, featured a mixed-race couple in an ad, drawing a racially tinged outcry from some YouTube commenters. But most of America loved it: According to data from Ace Metrix, the ad tested the highest of six new Cheerios ads this year and garnered attention and likeability scores 9% and 11% "above the current 90-day norm for cereals."

Mr. Barilla later apologized in a statement posted on the company's corporate Facebook page, but generally stuck by his comment. "I apologize if my words have led to misunderstandings or controversy, and have bumped the sensibilities of some people," wrote Barilla, according to an English translation reported by the L.A. Times. "I have the utmost respect for homosexuals and for freedom of expression to anyone. I also said and repeat that I respect marriages between persons of the same sex. Barilla in its advertising has always chosen to represent the family because this is a symbol of welcome...for all."

Guido Barilla
Guido Barilla

What is family?
But in the U.S., the larger question is what kind of "family" resonates most with consumers?

"If you look at demographic shifts, your plain straight-up vanilla family is becoming the minority. So if you want to show a family that represents new America, you are going to be more inclusive of a variety of different configurations," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer-research psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University. She stressed that "it doesn't mean that you have to champion anything," adding, "always with great adverting you just want to be representative. It's not a political statement."

Barilla's U.S. Facebook page took a more conciliatory tone in this post that went live Thursday afternoon: "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."

It prompted this response from one commenter: "Thanks! Now let's hear it from the CEO."

David Diamond, a consumer packaged-goods industry consultant said that while Mr. Barilla's comments were "thoughtless" and "counter to trends," he doesn't expect much consumer backlash at grocery shelves. "This is something that will be talked about in creative communities and in gay communities. But is anybody going to bother to boycott Barilla pasta over this? Probably not," he said.

Pushing the envelope
In addition embracing non-traditional family units, some brands in the U.S. are pushing the envelope with edgier campaigns that bypass the traditional smiling family approach. For instance, Ragu got plenty of attention last year with a spot that referenced the sexual habits of parents. The Milano cookie brand, which is owned by Campbell Soup Co., is running a campaign called "My Yummy Secret" that references a boozing suburban housewife. And General Mills' Green Giant recently launched an ad whose storyline involves a spying husband who suspects his wife of having an affair.

Of course, Barilla is not entirely taking the smiling-family-around-the-table approach. This ad below, called "don't ruin the moment," features a couple who appear to meet at some sort of formal party or wedding. Moments later, they get romantic. And as the suggestive spot ends, they are about to share a kiss over a strand of pasta. The couple is heterosexual.

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