The brand has responded aggressively, including posting a
colorful message across its website and Facebook page saying it
"stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the
attitude and actions of the Russian government."
Sidetrack, a large and influential gay bar in Chicago, is among
those heading the call to dump the brand. In a message posted on
its Facebook page, the bar said it "cannot support a brand so
associated with Russia at a time when Russia is implementing
(against strong world criticism) it's anti-gay law that bans gay
Stoli controls 2.6% share of the U.S. vodka market by volume,
according to Euromonitor International.
Led by President Vladimir Putin, Russia has taken a host of
actions of late, including passing one measure that bans
"propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations."
The controversy could cause headaches for U.S. corporations
linked to the 2014 Winter Olympics that will be hosted in Sochi,
Russia. In a column in the New York Times this week, actor and
playwright Harvey Fierstein
called on the U.S. Olympic Committee to demand retraction of
Russia's laws "under the threat of boycott."
Still, other gay-rights groups are opposed to a boycott.
Outsports, which described itself as the "galactic leader in gay
recently editorialized that "the LGBT community needs to go
after politicians and government officials to affect change in
Russia and leave the future of Olympic athletes alone."
Among those with a major stake in the Olympics proceeding as
normal include NBC, which will broadcast the games, as well as
major corporations such as Coca-Cola, AT&T and General Motors that
committed to millions of dollars in advertising.
Coca-Cola, whose marketing activities include sponsoring the
Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay, said in a statement to Ad Age that
while it does "not condone intolerance of any kind," it "does not
take positions on political matters unrelated to our business."
But sponsors could face pressure to make some type of statement
against Russia's policies as the February games near. NBC already
has. The Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday
sent a letter to NBCUniversal CEO Stephen Burke urging the
company to use its "unique opportunity" to "expose this inhumane
and unjust law to the millions of American viewers who will tune
into watch the games." For instance, the organization said it
"wouldn't be right" for NBC to air the opening ceremonies "without
acknowledging that a whole segment of the Russian population
… can be jailed for an immutable aspect of their
According to Human Rights, activities now considered illegal in
Russia include public displays of affection between LGBT people
– like holding hands – as well as displaying rainbow
flags and even tweeting positive messages about LGBT people.
In a statement, NBCUniversal said it "strongly supports equal
rights and the fair treatment for all people. The spirit of the
Olympic Games is about unifying people and countries through the
celebration of sport and it is our hope that spirit will
Meanwhile, SPI Group, which owns Stoli, is downplaying its
Russian links. In an open letter sent Thursday to the LGBT
community, CEO Val Mendeleev sought to correct what he called
inaccurate information found online that links his company to the
Russian government. The Stoli brand, he wrote, is privately owned
by the SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg "in the heart of
Western Europe." He added that while Stoli is made from Russian
ingredients, it is blended and distilled at a facility in Latvia.
He called Russia's actions "dreadful" and cited examples of pro-gay
marketing the brand has used in recent years, including a 2006
initiative called "Be real: Stories from Queer America," that
featured short documentaries.
Still, some consumers are not satisfied. In response to the
brand's Facebook post, one commenter said he would like to see the
brand's views "published in a few Russian magazines and newspapers
before backing off." Another person said "if you are pumping money
into Russia by buying their ingredients, then this means nothing
more than 'please keep giving us your money.' "
Yet, other consumers were supportive, including one person who
said that "Stoli has no influence on the political actions of the
Russian government and boycotting this supportive brand will have
no affect on the tragedy that is happening in Russia." Another
commenter named "Tex" simply threw up his hands: "Screw It ... I
can't figure out where all the vodkas come from ... I won't drink
any of them anymore..."
Contributing: Natalie Zmuda