Barilla Pasta Boycott: Will it Make a Difference?

Image via Bertolli 1865 Pasta Facebook page

Image via Bertolli 1865 Facebook page

There has been much talk about boycotting Barilla Pasta after its CEO announced it would never feature gay families in its ads. As the drumbeat of a pasta boycott has been getting louder in response to Barilla’s statement, and its CEO’s numerous attempts at apologies, I’ve been thinking about the my own involvement with boycotts for political reasons and whether they work.

If you were brought up as a liberal hearing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott as I was, boycotts were easy. We boycotted South Africa and boycotted grapes in the late 1960s. When I was a young mother, we boycotted Domino’s Pizza because the owner ploughed all his profits into anti-reproductive-choice causes.

Boycotts were worthy, righteous, principled. You gave up something you wanted in order to make both an economic and political point. And sometimes, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the United Farm Workers grape boycott, they were successful and you could feel like you actually accomplished something.

But boycotts are not always so straightforward and feel-good for us liberal lefties. During the Clintons’ attempt to reform health coverage, word went out that Pizza Hut was happily giving its European employees health coverage while not providing anything to its U.S. employees. Boycott? Since very few of Pizza Hut-like places had employee benefits, did it make sense to boycott only Pizza Hut? Was Subway (where we chose to eat one time instead) really any better?

And sure, I boycott Walmart because of its maltreatment of employees (minimum wage, no real benefits, firing people as they get more senior with better pay), but then again, there is no Walmart near me and I have no desire to go to one anyway. But what about people who live in places where shopping at Walmart is just about getting cheap stuff?

Remember when Target gave so much money to a right-wing political group that created ads for an anti-gay gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota? Our family boycotted Target. But should we have stopped the boycott when they apologized? We did, but now it turns out that Target also recently gave lots of money to the Republican Governors Association which in turn supports a number of right-wing anti-gay gubernatorial hopefuls including Virginia’s premier homophobe and woman-controller, Ken Cuccinelli. So I guess the boycott-beat goes on.

And what about places which do bad things but also do good things. The CEO of Whole Foods opposed health reform, called Obama a socialist in 2008 and more recently called him a fascist. The Whole Foods grocery store chain is known to be anti-union, but its employees have benefits, including health insurance, and are paid decently. Whole Foods employees I’ve talked to privately have told me they’re well-treated.

What about Starbucks which has a good reputation for supplying health benefits to even part-time employees, but sometimes keeps workers under the minimum number of hours to get health insurance and also engaged in union-busting.

What about those “good” American companies – not very many of them – that signed on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh? One of them was Abercrombie & Fitch, most recently known for the chairman’s disgusting comments about uncool (ie., overweight) people. My family has been boycotting them – do we stop because they did the right thing on this important accord?

In the midst of all this complexity, we have a refreshing, sorbet-between-courses boycott, Barilla Pasta.
The back story on this is the recent statement by the chairman of Barilla (which is a privately owned company) that they would never, ever use a gay couple in an advertisement because Barilla likes “traditional families.” He went on to put the icing on the cake (or the cheese on the pasta) by saying:

“If gays don’t like it, they can always eat another brand of pasta.”

Well come on, that’s just asking for a boycott isn’t it? What he didn’t seem to realize is that gay folks are supported by lots of not-gay folks and the outcry was big. So big in fact, that he took what he thought was a step back, explaining that what he really meant was that he “simply wanted to highlight the central role of the woman in the family.”

I guess the poor guy thought that gay or non-traditional family equals no woman in the family. Maybe he’s never heard of lesbians – what are they, a new variety of cherry tomato? Or maybe he thought showing some cute guy lovingly serving Barilla pasta to another cute guy might mean the end of women in families because if a man can cook and serve, why would anyone need a woman? Their role in the family would vanish like the dead-tree Newsweek!

Of course, lots of people have joined the fun now, including other pasta makers. Bertolli Pasta must have had a good time making an ad showing diverse types of couples, pasta couples that is: penne with penne, bow tie with bow tie and penne with bow tie, complete with a macaroni shell dog. A few years ago, Bertolli wasn’t afraid to film a commercial highlighting a gay couple:

This may be the only good-humored boycott I’ve ever seen. And yet it’s serious – a recent column in Forbes Magazine suggests that Barilla is running scared.

As a gay-rights advocate (complete with a lesbian daughter insulted in two ways by the Barilla chairman), I want to issue a big Thank You! to Barilla for offering us one of the few clear-cut boycotts in recent times. It’s not even a sacrifice for us to boycott them since there are so many pasta companies out there to choose from. Hmm. I wonder if Ronzoni pasta has health coverage for its employees?

Marti Teitelbaum lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She is the mother of two high-energy girls (a twenty-something future radical social worker and a finally full teen 13-year-old!) and is married to a psychiatrist who devotes half his work life to a child mental health clinic. For almost 20 years, Marti used her degree in public health to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, producing most of their numbers on children’s health, disability, health insurance, Medicaid, and immunization. She has always been a political junkie and a fiber-holic and now, for the first time in her life, has the time to indulge in both of these addictions. Politics and weaving have a lot in common: both take a lot of thought and preparation and both have a lot of complicated entanglements. But the difference is that weaving calms the soul and produces something useful and potentially beautiful. Politics doesn’t.

Image via Bertolli 1865 Pasta Facebook Page

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