A couple of weeks ago there was an unlikely entrant into the visual culture and politics discussion. Pasta. Yep, that humble stuff that is usually found dried in boxes or cellophane packets in the supermarket. The stuff that you take home and smoother in tomato sauce, or cream, bacon, cheese, vegetables, and then twirl around forks and eat. The stuff that is eaten the world over and as kids we used to glue onto pieces of paper to make “art” (clever visual culture reference eh?) The very same stuff that makes carbohydrate phobic people recoil with terror and Italians scream with joy. Yes, humble pasta became the centre of the visual culture debate. Why? Because of the largest pasta maker in the world, Barilla. and their Chief Executive Officer, Guido Barilla.
Guido Bariilla made a number of comments back at the end of September where he said things that angered a number of people in the LGBTQ community and a lot of straight people too. The first was that he wouldn’t ever feature gay people in his adverts. The second thing was that he felt that gay adoption was unfair on children. The third was that gay people should go and eat a different brand of pasta if they didn’t like this. This predictably caused a bit of a firestorm against Guido and Barilla. The internet took off like lightning and before we knew where we were Facebook and Twitter were on fire with people ranting and raving about the whole situation (on both sides). The whole thing was quickly hotter that the water needed to boil the pasta in and Guido and Barilla were in a jam. Guido released the predictable apology the next day, which actually made things worse, due to it having not been properly vetted by his marketing folks. This was swiftly followed up by a video the day after with a contrite Guido looking appropriately sheepish and promising to meet with homos the world over to solve world hunger, kiss babies, cure cancer, and end world wars.
So what’s the visual culture and politics link to all of this then? The politics link is easy; LGBTQ issues of course. It’s always a firestorm and regardless of the rights and wrongs or your beliefs on all of this, Guido Barilla should know better. His shareholders don’t care about who is right or wrong in the debate about LGBTQ rights. They just care about people eating bucket loads of pasta, something that his comments put in jeopardy one way or another. The visual culture side of things though comes in the way that the other pasta companies reacted and how swiftly too.
First off the blocks was Bertolli. They came out with this image almost immediately that flew around the web like wild-fire. It’s a testament to their marketing department that they were off the blocks so quickly and it’s an amazing example of the power of social media. The images spread almost as quickly as Guido’s faux pas. They also took care to spread the story through other channels that they had featured television commercials with gay couples in before. You can see one of them here.
Hotly in pursuit was Buitoni with their effort, also designed to show their inclusivity and to further take advantage of Barillas stumble. I have no idea what the Butoni position actually is on same-sex equality but at that point in the game it didn’t really matter; they were just another footprint on the back of Barilla who were lying facedown in the dirt as everyone raced over them to declare themselves “Friends of Dorothy”. The image that they created, as you can see, were direct and to the point. They didn’t pull any punches at all and stated their position clearly with no room for misinterpretation. Butoni took a slightly riskier approach perhaps compared to the fun approach of Bertolli but they were both powerful and tapped into the explosive issue that had been kicked off by Guido and they used it for their own ends.
The point of all of this is that the quickest way of “showing solidarity” with the LGBTQ community (and their money) while stealing market share from Barilla was with images and the web. They recognized the impact of visual images to communicate a message and they took the shortest way to activate it; people and the web. It took advantage of the fact that a major part of our culture is visual and that it is now also based on accessibility and speed.
Guido and his company didn’t stand a chance. By the time they got around to doing the video two days later food banks all over the place were filled with Barilla pasta and newspapers all across the world had well and truly done a number on Guido and the gang. It’s only now, two weeks later, that the Facebook page for Barilla in the US has started to post recipes again after a hiatus. The speed with which it all happened and the way it played out through the visual mediums of pictures and videos was staggering. The fact that it happened globally was equally incredible. It’s the first time I can ever recall something like this happening. Yes, there was an incident with Chik-Fil-A last year, but as a company they are pretty inconsequential compared to a company the size and scale of Barilla. There was also nowhere near the scale of visual response to the affair as there was this time either. People were even creating HRC equality signs out of pasta shapes for their Facebook icons!
My favourite image that come out of it all was this one. I saw it online a few minutes after the whole affair happened. It’s plain, simple, and to the point. Another example of how visuals work and it communicates its message perfectly, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. On a more humourous note though I did think to myself that pasta is a funny thing. Pasta is always a plate or bowl of the same thing. So it’s “homo” not “hetero” anyway. “Homopasta” is something we have all grown up with and is entirely natural. So what’s the big deal?