When Russian supermarket chain VkusVill published an advertisement online last week featuring a lesbian couple, advocates heralded it as a big step forward for the country’s LGBT community.
But after conservatives vowed to boycott the retailer and inundated the family with threats on social media, VkusVill pulled the ad and apologised on Sunday for “painfully hurting the feelings” of those offended by it – blaming the “mistake” on “certain staffers’ unprofessionalism”.
The uproar over VkusVill’s ad – one of the first big ads to feature LGBT people in Russia – points to the tightrope consumer-facing companies walk in catering to their progressive, middle-class base while navigating the state’s strict policing of the “traditional values” President Vladimir Putin claims uphold society.
VkusVill, inspired by US grocer Trader Joe’s, has rapidly expanded in recent years thanks to its focus on preservative-free produce as Russians take more interest in healthy eating.
It has more than 1,250 stores in 46 cities, including two supermarkets and a café in the Netherlands, and made $1.6 billion in revenue last year.
The retailer is part-owned by Baring Vostok, Russia’s largest foreign private equity investor, and is plotting future expansion including a possible market listing in New York.
In the pulled article – which it marked with an 18+ tag to avoid liability under Russia’s law against “promoting homosexuality to minors” – VkusVill wrote that “not talking about the real families who shop with us would be hypocritical”.
The ad featured a number of real-life VkusVill shoppers such as a student, a single mother, and two straight couples, then ended with the “matriarch”-led family including the lesbian couple.
The family of women posed for pictures with meatless burgers and coconut condensed milk as they espoused their support for veganism, recycling and polyamorous relationships.
After its publication last Thursday, anti-LGBT groups called for a criminal investigation and a boycott while the family received threats on social media.
A columnist for state news agency RIA Novosti accused VkusVill of “normalising [and] heroising biological deviancy”.
When it pulled the ad, VkusVill said it “had no intention of becoming a source of discord and hatred”. It then faced a second wave of criticism – this time, from those who supported the decision to run it in the first place.
“There was nothing to apologise for, if you ask me. I understand that it’s hard to take the amount of sh*t that was poured on you, but what did your staff do that was so unprofessional? They showed that people are different? And that they’re all customers you love and respect?”, Anastasia Tatulova, owner of a well known family-orientated chain of cafés, wrote on VkusVill’s Facebook page. Many other users vowed to boycott the chain.
Igor Stolyarov, a former senior vice-president for marketing at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games who is now operational director at bookmaker Liga Stavok, said the reputational damage for VkusVill was unlikely to last.
“A company’s goal is to make money. If you think they have any lofty goals to save the world, that’s for housewives watching state TV in prime time,” he said. “They might have attracted another target audience – people who support the LGBT movement and people who actively oppose it.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021