Some background story:

  1. Barilla pasta is pretty awesome. It’s the brand I buy – or, at least, it’s the brand that I used to buy when I openly ate carbohydrate*.
    *Today, I don’t buy carbohydrate in supermarkets. Instead, I seem to eat a lot of dessert in restaurants. Yes – it’s irrational.
  2. The Barilla Group is a family-run private business, that claims to be the Number 1 Pasta Maker in the world.
  3. Yesterday, the group Chairman, Guido Barilla, got a little vocal about his queer politics. Or, as the Left would have me write, his anti-queer politics.
  4. Basically, he said that he wouldn’t use a gay family to advertise Barilla products. Followed by: “Well, if [the gay community] like our pasta and our message, they will eat it; if they don’t like it and they don’t like what we say they will…eat another.
  5. Gay rights activists in Italy have taken him up on that offer, calling for a mass boycott of his pasta.
  6. And here we are.

Now, obviously, Italy is bad egg where prejudice is concerned. That poor new Minister of Integration, Cécile Kyenge, was likened to an orangutan by right-wing leader Roberto Calderoli*, had bananas thrown at her during a speech, and Dolores Valandro, a politician from Padua, openly called for Kyenge to be raped**.
*“When I see images of Kyenge I cannot help think, even if I don’t say that she is one, of a resemblance to an orangutan”. Calderoli did not resign.
**Valandro’s facebook comment, attached to a picture of Kyenge:
“Why no one ever rapes her, so that she understands what the victims of this heinous crime go through! Shame!” She, at least, was fired. 

But Cécile has not reacted by calling for boycotts, or even calling for resignations. She has been unbelievably classy about the whole thing: pointing out that prejudice does no favours for Italy’s image, and condemning language that instigates violence. She also responded to the banana-throwing by lamenting the wastefulness of it all in the face of so much starvation.

She is calmly, but effectively, calling Italians on their shit.

I dare you not to have open admiration for that woman.

In direct contrast to this, we have gay rights activists reacting to Barilla’s advertising campaign. And, to be clear, Guido was very explicit about his support for gay marriage. But he did say (as he’s allowed to) that he doesn’t necessarily see things the way the gay community does. Free speech – that right has to extend both ways.

So let’s talk about the economics of boycotts

Do boycotts work?

The general answer seems to be that they don’t, until they do. Which is not at all helpful.

But perhaps it would be helpful to point out that there is a distinct difference between a boycott over bad labour practices (like the boycott of Apple products in response to Foxconn’s treatment of its workers), and a boycott over an issue like same-sex marriage.

The first has public opinion on its side. The second is a polarising debate.

And logic would suggest that a company that is ambivalent on a polarising issue would be purely reliant on the quality of its product to dictate demand. But once it wades into a political discussion, that changes.

The Unintended Consequences of the Chick-fil-A Boycott

In mid-2012, the Chick-fil-A chain was subject to the same type of action that Barilla faces, over almost the exact same issue. President Dan Cathy came out in support of “traditional” marriage (Guido Barilla used the term “classic”); and both companies are privately-owned family-run businesses linked to food product.

In response to Dan’s evangelical outspokenness, there was a boycott campaign of Chick-fil-A stores initiated by the liberal left-wingers.

And what happened almost immediately after that? There was a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day campaign launched by the extreme right. And the Wednesday in question was “record-setting” for sales, according to ABC news.

Sure – maybe those sales won’t be sustainable. But then again, the lost sales will probably recover in more or less the same way, over more or less the same timeframe.

And more importantly, in the end, only a really small portion of the profits of any individual Chick-fil-A store would go to Dan Carthy and his political views. Most of it will go to fund the salaries of the individuals that work in the store, and to the chicken suppliers, and so on. So even if the boycott were successful, the real pain would be felt by employees losing their jobs.

It’s basically the old adage against general economic sanctions for countries, rather than targeted sanctions for individuals within the offensive government: the wrong people get hurt. And it causes resentment. And further polarises the debate.

Maybe The Cécile Kyenge Approach Is Best?

My point is: big actions like boycotts should be reserved for big issues. Mainly because they’re a bit hit-and-miss on the effectiveness front; and if the real strategy is to draw attention to the issue, then there are other (better) ways of doing it.

A private company’s advertising policy? That doesn’t sound so serious.

Rather be bemused by the whole thing. And post a ridiculing parody video on Youtube.

It’s the classy thing to do.

UPDATE: buzzfeed totally listened! I’d like to claim credit – but that seems a bit obnoxious. Here’s the link: “The Internet Responds“.