Business leaders should stay out of the culture wars

September 27, 2013, 6:28 PM UTC

FORTUNE — If there is one lesson business leaders around the globe should take to heart, it’s this: Just stay away from spouting off on cultural wedge issues. But if you can’t help yourself, at least try not to invite large swaths of your customer base to take their business elsewhere.

That’s what Guido Barilla, the president of the Italian company Barilla Pasta did this week. On a radio show, he said he would never depict “a homosexual family” in an advertisement. “Not out of a lack of respect,” he explained, “but because I do not see it like they do.” His idea of a family, he continued, is “a classic family where the woman has a fundamental role,” and that’s what his commercials depict.

When the radio hosts reminded him that gay people also eat pasta, just like regular people, he said, “That’s fine if they like our pasta and our communication, they can eat them. Otherwise, they can eat another pasta.”

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Many, many people — and hardly just gay ones — took him up on his offer, declaring on social media that they won’t ever again buy Barilla products. And they weren’t appalled only by Barilla’s anti-gay stance, but also by his characterization of women having a “fundamental role” in “a classic family.” Many took this to be a sexist statement. And indeed, as The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos points out, lots of Barilla’s commercials seem to put women in a stereotypical role: They’re depicted either seducing men with pasta, or, if they’ve already landed a husband, making pasta for their families (and apparently doing all the work).

The immense social-media backlash spurred the company to issue an apology. Barilla U.S. tweeted:

That wasn’t nearly enough, and a formal boycott has been declared.

Slate, because all it seems to do anymore is come up with the clumsiest, most contrived possible “contrarian” arguments as clickbait, has declared the boycott to be a bad idea. “I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how troubling this and other recent dust-ups regarding some giant corporation’s ‘feelings’ about the gays really are on closer inspection,” writes J. Bryan Lowder. He thinks that it’s just fine to stand up for “the gays,” but to join such a boycott, he says, is “to unavoidably endorse and enliven the insidious concept of corporate personhood.” But, he added, “Show me a company that’s actively hurting gay people, and then we can talk seriously about boycotts and the rest.”

So boycotting a company over what its leader (a person) says is a bad idea because that would (somehow) support the idea of “corporate personhood,” but supporting a boycott of a company for what it (as a company) does is just fine.

And of course, as is always the case when there is a backlash against someone who has said something dumb or insulting, there is all kinds of confusion being expressed over the nature of free speech. By this illogic, criticizing someone for what they have said is somehow an abrogation of speech rights.

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While such ill-advised remarks by business leaders are overwhelmingly harmful to their organizations, they aren’t entirely harmful. Last year, restaurant chain Chick-fil-A’s chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, declared on a radio show that we are “inviting God’s judgment” by allowing gay marriage. Later, after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, he tweeted that it was a [s]ad day for our nation.” (Note to C-suiters: Stay off Twitter, and stay off talk radio.)

The backlash was huge. Several local government leaders, including in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, declared or hinted they wouldn’t allow Chick-fil-A to open restaurants in their cities (itself a bad idea, and there was a backlash to that particular backlash) and massive boycotts were declared. But Cathy also gained a lot of support, predictably from culture-warrior politicians like Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. On Facebook (FB), Chick-fil-A suddenly had thousands of new “fans,” many or whom likely had never before eaten a Chick-fil-A meal (later, a similar thing happened after revelations of racist acts and statements by TV cook Paula Deen). A “Chick-fil-A Day” was held, where supporters of the company piled into its restaurants. Chick-fil-A had become much more than a purveyor of greasy meals: It had become a culture-war totem. That’s never good.

Chick-fil-A is a private company, so it’s hard to gauge the impact on its business. Polls indicated that reaction to Cathy’s statements was mixed. But the company also changed its policies both privately and publicly. It declared that it wouldn’t discriminate against gays, and after it was reported that the company had donated millions to anti-gay groups through its non-profit foundation WinShape, it decided it would no longer donate to any organization that opposes civil rights for gay people.

But the damage was done. No company wants to be known for anything other than the quality of its products. But now, the names of Barilla Pasta and Chick-fil-A have become synonymous with bigotry in many people’s minds. This is not good branding, to say the least.