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Shaken and Stirred: The Stoli Boycott, a PR Cocktail Recipe for Disaster

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Sep 22, 2013

In an unusual breaking of the ranks, the boycott against Russian vodka has become a flashpoint of controversy.

"Vodka is Russia's most iconic product," Dan Savage, who spearheaded the campaign, told MSNBC. While Savage conceded on his blog that no one would pay much attention to a gay boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games, "there is something we can do right here, right now," he added, "to show our solidarity with Russian queers."

Although Savage names several vodka brands, Stolichnaya, far and away the best known, has become the focus of protests. But other activists and columnists are maintaining that it doesn't make sense to target what Oscar Raymundo called in the San Francisco Examiner "one of the gay-friendliest global companies." In 2006, Stoli underwrote the documentary series Be Real: Stories From Queer America." Additionally, the brand has sponsored pride events in cities across the globe and has donated more than $1 million to various LGBT-related causes.

Of course, it can be argued that when a premium vodka company supports gay causes, it is only catering to one of its target demographics. "Stoli marketing to LGBT demographics comes years after Absolut Vodka did it," says longtime New York activist Bill Dobbs. "It helps their market share. The sentimentality about Stoli is misplaced."

Critics jumped on the fact that Raymundo is head of marketing for Gay Cities, which, along with Stoli parent company SPI Group, has been producing "The Most Original Stoli Guy" events all summer in gay bars around the country. (Full disclosure: David Foucher, publisher of EDGE, has noted his company's position as a "third-party media partner" with Gay Cities' campaign. "Our appropriate involvement with this boycott is our commitment to fairly and accurately report on it," says Foucher. "In line with this decision, the team at EDGE has decided to fulfill our business obligation and, for the moment, continue our sponsorship of the 'Most Original Stoli Guy' series of events.")

In late July, the two opposing camps squared off at New York's megabar Splash before it closed its doors for good last month. When a handful of ACT UP members disrupted a "Stoli Guy" competition, the drag hostess yelled, "This is America, not Russia."

Many are asking if it's fair to make one company the scapegoat for an entire nation's sins -- especially one that even its detractors agree isn't guilty of homophobia. The company has reacted by trying to clarify its position. After Americablog's John Aravosis discovered parent company SPI didn't include LGBT job protection, it added apparently hastened to add it to corporate policy.

You’re Dumping What In the Street?!?

There’s been considerable back-and-forth online about whether Stoli is even a Russian product. SPI is based in Luxembourg, 1,370 miles from the Russian border. Beyond that, no one can agree on anything else related to SPI. The company’s founder, Yuri Shefler, fled Russia years ago. "The owner isn’t even allowed back into the country," SPI marketing executive Lori Tieszen told EDGE. Actually, if he did return, he’d face arrest for a trumped-up charge of threatening to kill a Russian official.

SPI has been involved in a 12-year dispute with the Russian government over who owns the Stolichnaya name. CEO Val Mendeleev told Michelangelo Signorile that the Stoli label was changed from "Russian" to "premium" vodka to distinguish it from the Russian state-owned version.

Stoli is brewed in Latvia, but some activists maintain that it contains Russian ingredients. While conceding that the raw alcohol comes from a Russian distillery, Mendeleev countered that the company has been actively working to reduce its presence there. A Latvian LGBT rights group has issued a statement that "all Stolichnaya vodka for worldwide export is produced in Latvia."

When demonstrators at the Russian consulates in San Francisco and New York poured bottles of vodka into the streets in early July, a Russian vodka boycott seemed like a necessary reaction to the relentless persecution of LGBT Russians. After several regions in Russia -- including the second-largest city, St. Petersburg -- outlawed gay "propaganda," the broadly worded mandate became national policy. Putin, along with elders in the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalist groups, has become increasingly outspoken and outrageous in his blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Police stand by or join thugs who violently break up Gay Pride marches and rough up anyone they perceive as a gay advocate.

History Repeating

The news out of Russia keeps getting worse. Teens who come out to their families are placed in mental institutions. Four Dutch filmmakers were arrested just for talking to gay residents in the city of Murmansk. Most shocking of all, neo-Nazis who posed as men seeking a hook-up posted videos of they gay teens they had fun torturing.

Harvey Fierstein’s comparison of contemporary Russia to Nazi Germany in the 1930s suddenly became chillingly apt. Just as Germany progressively marginalized and demonized Jews before the Final Solution, Putin seems bent on making LGBT Russians a convenient sideshow for the country’s problems. Even if it doesn’t lead to death camps, Russia has one of the better track records for mass extermination -- from Ivan the Terrible’s slaughter of the boyars, to the czarist pogroms that killed thousands of Jews, on up to Stalin’s man-made famine in the Ukraine that killed millions.

Boycotting the country’s most notable export brand seemed like a good way to draw attention to the deteriorating situation. Besides, boycotting beverages comes with a respected pedigree in the gay world. In 1977, gay Americans launched a boycott of Florida orange juice growers, whose spokesperson, singer Anita Bryant, had led the first successful campaign against an anti-discrimination ordinance. Bryant became too controversial for the farmers, was fired and slipped into bankruptcy. Around the same time, gay consumers began a boycott of Coors beer because of the Coors family’s support of extreme right and anti-gay groups, a boycott that helped lead to a 180-degree turnaround in policy.

So it seemed natural to boycott something that could be easily removed from the top shelf. Unfortunately, anti-gay genocidal mania as official policy isn’t limited to Russia. Most African and Muslim-dominated nations have even more vicious laws on the books. But those countries don’t have a popular, readily identifiable export. How do you make a public display of trashing Middle Eastern oil or African diamonds? In fact, 90 percent of Russia’s own exports just happen to be minerals and energy, especially natural gas.

There’s also the question of whether boycotts have lost their meaning. In the era of social media and the Internet, every day seems to bring another announcement from Christian fringe groups like One Million Moms and the Family Research Council, or grassroots LGBT groups like GetEQUAL and Queer Nation. Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign told EDGE that it generally doesn’t endorse boycotts because "it’s difficult to achieve success on a large scale."

HRC was one of the LGBT organizations to which Gay Cities erroneously reported it was donating the proceeds of its "Stoli Gay" campaign. SPI’s Tieszen told EDGE that the announcement was premature but that some groups have been receptive to the idea. (HRC declined to comment for this article.) Bill Mattle, who headed the Stonewall Foundation for 11 years, told EDGE, "Right now, too many people have too many questions. For a non-profit relying on donations, why court that at the moment?"

He added that at Sandblast, the weekend-long gay party in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a bartender was wearing a Stoli T-shirt. "It’s not like that happened accidentally," he noted. "They’re standing by a vendor relationship." Some bars, such as XES in New York and 19 in Minneapolis, have questioned whether the boycott will really accomplish anything other than stigmatizing a good corporate citizen. "It’s frustrating," Tieszen says. "They’re serving the wrong cause."

When Boycotts Go Wrong... And Right

In the case of Stoli, the boycott may actually make life worse for its intended beneficiaries. LGBT Latvians have released a statement asking for an end to the boycott because it "could also backfire and have unintended consequences." In sharp contrast to its giant neighbor, the small Baltic nation has LGBT job protection, but it remains very much an uphill battle to change the hearts and minds of its citizens. In 2009, Jamaican LGBT rights group J-FLAG lambasted U.S. queers for launching a boycott that, the group said, only increased assaults. Needless to say, the Nazis were masters of making the victims seem like the perpetrators; any faint protest by foreigners gave them more evidence of the power of worldwide Jewry.

Gay marketing guru Bob Witeck and many others believe that protests against Chick-fil-A - protests that began after it was revealed its owner gave to anti-gay groups and thought marriage equality would turn God against America -- turned into a public-relations disaster. Conservatives lined up by the hundreds of thousands for a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day." Politicians’ statements that they’d use every trick in the book to see that no Chick-fil-As opened on their turf were seen as over-reaching. On the other side of the equation, right-wing groups have pretty much thrown in the towel after a series of boycotts against companies like Home Depot, Starbucks and Walt Disney went nowhere. One Million Moms’ taking credit for the cancellation of TV shows like The New Normal and GCB or JCPenney’s stock dive has become a joke even on the right.

In an article published by EDGE in February, Witeck said that we were entering a "post-boycott era." Obviously, he spoke too soon. But if Mae McDonnell, a Georgetown University professor, is correct, the Stoli boycott won’t actually gain anything more substantial than media attention. She told The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos that boycotts have never hurt a company’s bottom line or changed buying habits.

"Ultimately," Abad-Santos writes, "the boycott has informed more people about gay rights in Russia, and it probably hasn’t hurt Stoli too badly," adding, "the very fact that we’re talking about Russian gay rights months before the 2014 Olympics is an achievement."

"The boycott has gotten people in the LGBT community excited," says activist Bill Dobbs. "It’s not easy getting people excited about politics. There’s plenty pro and con on the boycott issue, but it’s important for people to roll their sleeves up."

To its critics, the Stoli boycott is nothing more than a lazy, feel-good campaign that mistakes symbolism for effecting change. The term "slacktivism," a portmanteau of "slacker" and "activism," is being used to describe people who spend their time signing online petitions or posting on Facebook.

"It might be better to spend energy supporting local organizations that are doing the tough work to change the situation in Russia," says Brian Ellner, the founder of New Yorkers for Marriage Equality and a presumptive candidate for Congress.

It’s true that protests have reached the ears of world leaders, including President Obama, but, as Dobbs notes, "It’s going to take sustained struggle to put pressure on Putin." Whether Putin will be forced to listen remains to be seen.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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