by Colin Jowell

When making commentary on a storm in Social Media, it’s important to start with the facts. According to Reuters, Guido Barilla, CEO of Barilla Pasta said "I would never do (a commercial) with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don't agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role". He then went on to say “If gays 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". Cue outrage.

This is of course not the first time a CEO has said something offensive. Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch said "Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that." The backlash that ensued involved a viral video of a man giving his A&F clothing to homeless people. What’s scary about this story is that the comments were made in 2006. The video went viral 7 years later!

At last check Abercrombie and Fitch is still in business and certainly survived the 6 years since the comments were made. And it’s likely that Barilla will do the same.

Here’s why - as distasteful as many might find the inherent prejudice in both comments, the marketing principle, of identifying your target, and marketing exclusively to them is not.

Every day large organisations with mass-market targets break up their audiences into segments. Segments are by their very nature, stereotype. And stereotype is always bound to offend people. Air New Zealand had a segmentation model based on characters from The Simpsons. For example, “Mr Burns” flyers liked their own patch of the plane, and were, by definition, quite selfish. As much as I relate that they are probably talking about me here, if I were strictly politically correct about it, I’d resent being compared to a rich, lonely old man who abuses his staff and releases his hounds on people.

Where Mr. Barilla may come unstuck is that he refers to a classic family: in Australia, 71 per cent of households are defined as families, but the number of people in that family have declined from 3 in 1981, to 2.6 in 2011. So if we assume a classic family as mum, dad, plus kid, well that doesn’t really hold the majority anymore. It is still a sound strategy to feature this in advertising though - more as a matter of aspiration of the market nostalgic for the family memories they have of the past rather than a literal reflection of the present.  And if you look at the first part of the commentary, that’s actually what he was getting at.

But by spelling the strategy out, by actually talking about it, he’s unnecessarily excluding people that would have otherwise been blissfully unaware of his view on the world. Wearing your strategy on your sleeve, isn’t a sound strategy at all.

Things to think about

  • Cases like this should not make marketers be afraid of targeting their message to a desired audience. Trying to please everyone will ultimately please no one.
  • How you talk about that strategy however should be done with utmost care- the days of all publicity being good publicity are long over.
  • The values of your organization matter- and keeping those values in line with the values of the market is critical.