Stepping into Troubled Waters

Starbucks and Barilla pasta showed once more why companies can get in hot water when they enter the roiled realm of social issues.Starbucks and Barilla pasta demonstrated once again the travails of plunging into the roiled waters of emotional social issues.

With a nudge from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked his latte-sipping customers to leave their guns at home, which prompted gun-toters to rush to the nearest coffee shop and take a selfie of them toting. One Facebook posting showed a guy with an assault rifle sucking up a grande drink, accompanied by his girlfriend wearing a Starbucks T-shirt.

Without a nudge, Chairman Guido Barilla told a reporter he wouldn't use a gay family in his advertisements because "the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company." His comments spread through social media and triggered threats of a #BoycottBarilla. One of the first calls Barilla may have received could have been from Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, who earned a similar boycott for a similar comment. 

Neither plunge into troubled waters will likely have a lasting effect on either consumer giant, but the episodes show what can happen when you enter those waters. You better know how to swim in rough currents.

Schultz is no stranger to the culture wars. He has taken positions in support of gay rights and led a business effort to hire more Americans to speed economic recovery. It wasn't a huge surprise he would enter the gun control minefield. After all, Starbucks says it sells an experience, not just coffee. A lot of people may not be comfortable reading the morning paper or working on their laptop next to someone packing heat.

Barilla's comments seemed like an unnecessary provocation. Surely he could have come up with a more deft dodge to a question about why Barilla wasn't helping to change the stereotypical image of women in Italian advertising. In the interview, Barilla explained why women are important in his pasta ads, then noted he "respected everyone," expressed support for gay marriage, but opposed gay adoption. His answer turned into red meat bait for gay rights and their political supporters.

The immediate reaction to these kinds of comments isn't the whole story. The group formed after the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings was energized by the Schultz "victory" and immediately targeted other major corporations, including Staples, which has experienced incidences of gun violence inside its stores. That, in turn, redoubled efforts by gun owners to increase their counter-pressure.

For Barilla, the next domino to fall is less clear. Chick-fil-A survived its boycott and may have even picked up its business little. However, it is a company with a clear conservative demographic. Barilla markets its pasta more broadly. Given the surfeit of other pasta brands, a boycott could hurt its business, both in Italy and the United States, where it opened a pasta plant in the Rochester, New York area in 2007.

There is no simple answer about whether to jump off the pier or stay on shore. One thing is clear, however; you better have lifesaving skills to avoid being swallowed up by swirling currents of public opinion. There is no excuse for falling overboard thoughtlessly.