Russia's Anti-Gay Laws Put Pressure on Stoli, NBC

Russian Vodkas Feeling The Heat. Could Winter Olympic Sponsors Be Next?

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Stolichnaya Vodka has come out swinging against the Russian government's anti-gay policies in an attempt to thwart a growing boycott against the brand in the U.S. Meanwhile, corporations linked to the 2014 Olympics in Russia, including NBC, could be put on the defensive as gay-rights supporters urge U.S. officials to fight back against the country's draconian laws, including potentially boycotting the games.

Stoli began feeling the heat last week when sex columnist Dan Savage called on U.S. consumers to dump Russian vodka to "show solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin's increasingly fascistic Russia." Since then #dumpstoli and #dumprussianvodka hashtags have spread across social media at rapid speed, leading some bars to pull Stoli from their shelves.

Russian vodka protest
Russian vodka protest

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 'propaganda.' "

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 sports," 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 have 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 identity."

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 prevail."

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

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