Dolce & Gabbana is the latest brand to discover the perils of the marriage equality debate

March 16, 2015, 5:35 PM UTC

Let the backlash begin.

Star fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana found themselves embroiled in a firestorm over the weekend after they were quoted in Italian celebrity magazine Panorama saying that “the only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow; there are things that should not be changed.”

While those comments were similar to those made a few years ago by these two men, the founders of luxury brand and celebrity favorite Dolce & Gabbana, their positions against gay marriage, gay adoption and the use of techniques such as IVF (which they said created “synthetic” children) have unleashed a ferocious reaction and prompted many celebrities, and consumers, to call for a boycott of Dolce & Gabbana, a brand that generates about $1 billion in sales a year by some estimates. Many were all the more appalled given that the statements were made by two gay men in an industry often seen as gay-friendly.

“Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions. I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana,” rock star Elton John said in an angry post on Instagram. Courtney Love and Ricky Martin were among the other celebrities calling for a boycott. Dolce and Gabbana, a couple for years until they broke up in the early 2000s, responded by calling John a “fascist” and advocating for a boycott of his music.

(No word yet from Madonna, a prominent advocate for gay rights for whom Dolce and Gabbana have long designed clothes. Then again, Madonna appeared in their ads in 2010, four years after Gabbana made headlines with a round anti-gay-marriage comments.)

A public relations firestorm is likely to be an unwelcome distraction for the pair, who last year each received a suspended 18-month jail sentences for hiding hundreds of millions of euros from Italian tax authorities, and whose company is in the midst of a U.S. expansion.

The contretemps is only the latest by a consumer brand wading into a debate that remains controversial even as marriage equality has spread in Western countries, including Italy, and a majority of U.S. states. (Last week, a survey found that gay marriage is supported by 59% of Americans, double the number who supported it in 2004, the year Massachusetts became the first state to grant marriage rights to gays and lesbians.)

Chick-fil-A last week announced it would open its first New York City franchises later in 2015, some three years after its current CEO made comments critical of gay marriage and ignited a huge controversy. Last year, that executive, Dan Cathy, said he was done weighing in on an issue he said was best left to politicians, putting his religious beliefs aside, and that his focus was on urban expansion for the fast-food chain.

The controversy can run the other way too. J.C. Penney (JCP) felt the wrath of marriage traditionalists in 2012 when the department store hired lesbian television personality Ellen DeGeneres to be its spokesman and featured a male couple in one of its mailings. While it’s debatable how much of an impact the boycott had, it was an unwelcome development at a time Penney’s sales cratered because of Ron Johnson’s failed re-imagining of the brand. (Macy’s was similarly targeted by “One Million Moms” for its support for gay marriage, but its ads were more circumspect and the retailer was never targeted for a boycott. )
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Catering to gays now appears to be a way to project sophistication and enlightenment for a brand, something that can help when wooing straight customers, too. A case in point is discount retailer Target (TGT): At its investor day this month, the company made no bones about calling families led by a same-sex couple a part of its core customer base going forward. And indeed, many shoppers, even those who might espouse conservative views, seem to be completely indifferent to the issue: Apple (AAPL) recently reported its best quarter ever, one during which its CEO Tim Cook came out.

Still, wading into these waters can be treacherous for a brand. Witness how gingerly everyone from Target to Starbucks Coffee (SBUX) to Home Depot (HD) last year addressed the issue of whether or not to ban customers from carrying firearms into the stores where it’s legally allowed. For many brands, there is little upside to being outspoken.

“It depends on your brand,” said Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York. “If you are a brand where taking a stand on a social issue is a fit, it can help. But as a general matter, [companies] are better off keeping away.”