ROME (AFP) - Pasta maker Barilla fought boycott calls on Friday after its CEO said he would never feature gay couples in commercials, prompting renewed calls for 1950s-style Italian television ads to get with the times.
The leading pasta company in Italy and a major exporter worldwide with a turnover last year of 3.9 billion euros (S$6.6 billion), Barilla has taken to social media to say sorry following a major backlash.
"While we can't undo recent remarks, we can apologise. To all our friends, family, employees and partners that we have hurt or offended, we are deeply sorry," the family-owned company said on its US Facebook page.
One commenter responded: "I'm Italian, I'm gay, I'm married legally to a man, I have three adopted children. I had Barilla pasta for dinner last night. Today, tomorrow and forever more, I will choose another brand of pasta. Goodbye, Barilla! You lose!"
The scandal began with a radio interview by chief executive Guido Barilla on Wednesday in which he said that their target customers were "a classic family".
"We have a slightly different culture. For us, the concept of a canonical family remains one of the fundamental values of the business," he said.
Asked if he would ever consider including a gay couple in one of his television commercials, he said: "We would not do it because ours is a traditional family."
"If (gay people) like our pasta and our communication, they can eat it. If they do not like it, if they do not like what we say, they can eat a different one."
The comments provoked scorn and derision on social media, with many critics playing on the company's slogan: "Where there is Barilla, there is a home".
One spoof commercial seen on Twitter read: "Where there is Barilla, there is homophobia". Another said: "Where there is my home, there is no Barilla".
Mr Guido Barilla stressed that he was personally not homophobic and was in favour of gay marriage, but he made a distinction with what the company was willing to include in its television commercials.
The comments threw a spotlight on an Italian adland inhabited by smiling housewives, large broods of children and husbands whose only role in the kitchen appears to be to taste the food and sit down to eat, which critics say is now hopelessly outdated.
"We have to overcome stereotypes," Italy's Speaker of Parliament Laura Boldrini said at a conference earlier in the week before the Barilla scandal exploded.
"I am thinking of certain ads in Italy in which the father and children are sitting at the table while the mother is standing and serving everyone," she said.
The images no longer reflect Italian realities, where the number of housewives is decreasing and where a growing number of men are stay-at-home fathers.
More and more gay and lesbian couples are also choosing to live together, even though their unions are not officially recognised under Italian law.
The days when eager visitors would queue up to see the Mulino Bianco, a white windmill in Tuscany that was chosen as a symbol for a famous brand of biscuits also owned by Barilla, are apparently over.
"The parade of women busying themselves with pots and pans, serving and looking after their husbands and children in ads, do they mirror Italian society?" asked Ms Annamaria Testa, an advertising expert.
"Are we really sure they sell more?" she said.
Speaking at a conference of the Italian advertising association UPA earlier this year, Ms Testa said employing stereotypes was "a dangerous trap".
"Let's finally be truthful!" she said.