Pasta chairman Guido Barilla and the tricky art of the apology

September 27, 2013
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A pasta chairman's comments have gotten him into hot water with gay rights advocates. (Edward Schneider for The Washington Post)

Remember Jesus chicken? Now some are boycotting what they see as anti-gay pasta.

Guido Barilla, chairman of Barilla Group, the world's leading pasta maker, issued an apology Thursday for remarks made on Italian radio that he would not put homosexuals in the company's advertising. In the radio interview, according to The Guardian, Barilla said: "For us the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company. I would not do it but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others ... [but] I don't see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family."

He also reportedly said he opposed adoption by gay parents and that if gay consumers "like our pasta and our advertising, they'll eat our pasta, if they don't like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand."

In his mea culpa, Barilla, whose image is currently on the company's home page next to the words "I apologize," said in a statement on the company's English language Web site that "to all those who have been offended, including the thousands of employees and partners who work with Barilla around the world, I apologize for and regret my insensitive comments. I understand that they were hurtful and they are not a genuine view of my opinion." He goes on to describe his "utmost respect" for gay people and "all loving marriages and families," and says "while I cannot undo recent remarks, I can apologize."

Many, however, saw Barilla's efforts as a pseudo-apology, based on other reported remarks. The Associated Press writes that in the apology, Barilla "insisted that traditional families have always been 'identified' with the Barilla brand." And Reuters reports that a Barilla apology statement included that he was trying to say "simply that the woman plays a central role in a family" and that the company "features families in its commercials because it embraces anyone." Many on Twitter, which erupted Wednesday after Barilla made his original comments with calls for a boycott, weren't satisfied by what they saw as qualified remarks.

What's driving the furor isn't necessarily that a food company doesn't feature gay couples in its advertisements. Most food companies don't do that. Some people apparently still have trouble with the idea of multiracial parents in a Cheerios ad, much less gay ones.

It's that a company leader candidly admitted to a distinction between a "sacred family" and other families, seemed dismissive of the value of a whole group of consumers, and then was able to turn around so quickly and say that he has the "utmost respect" for that very group. In this case, an apology, however unequivocal it may or may not have been, may not be enough. It will probably take time, and action, to reverse the damage.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

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CEOs, beware the YouTube apology

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | September 27, 2013