The Joke that Backfired

Last month, a lady in Chicago walking past the trendy food emporium Eataly spotted a poster she found to be sexist: “Bring Home an Italian. Great Legs, Better Body.”  The cutesy ad was only for wine but the spotter, Brittany Pape, wrote to Eataly that the ad was “tone deaf” considering the sexual misconduct scandal then swirling around Eataly partner Mario Batali.

For those not familiar with the Eataly chain, it was founded in Italy in 2007 to market Italian food products. Media chefs like Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich became partners in the venture which now has stores in Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  Every Italian food product under the sun is sold or served up in mini-deli/cafeterias under its roof.  Prices, as you can imagine, are as upscale as the products.

Brittany Pape’s complaint to Eataly somehow reached the Chicago Tribune and a reporter contacted her as well as Eataly’s PR chief Sara Massarotta.  In no time, this tempest in a teapot grew to an investigative report by the Tribune after they noticed another sidewalk poster urging customers to “Bring Home an Italian Worth the Smell.” The product this time was truffles.

The Tribune reporter smelled a controversy and contacted our Chicago representative Bill Dal Cerro and an associate of the Italic Institute Lou Rago, who has his own Italian American non-profit.  Both were asked if they considered the posters offensive – clearly, the reporter himself saw a double meaning in the phrasing of the posters.  Both said yes.

The easiest way to determine if something is offensive is to substitute another ethnic group for Italians. For example,“Bring Home a Jew Worth the Smell.” suddenly becomes less amusing and more problematic.  Substitute “an African” or “an Indian,” and it only gets worse.

But this story becomes more interesting.

Sara Massarotto, the Eataly PR person, is an Italian native now living in New York City.  She was hired by Eataly in 2016 and brags that “being a communicator is part of my core DNA.” (If she created or approved these posters she may unknowingly have some Don Rickles genes as well!) With the Chicago Tribune on her back, Massarotto went into crisis mode – interoffice emails flew around Eataly concluding that Brittany Pape’s complaint would go unanswered and the posters would remain up.

Unfortunately, these internal emails were accidently copied to Brittany Pape who forwarded them to the Tribune.  Now, a second Tribune article hit the newsstands.  Massarotto and Eataly were exposed as not only defamers of Italians but as internet oafs.  Immediately, all the posters came down.

What can we learn from all this?

Despite the Tribune stories, Eataly only suffered two days of embarrassing press – no boycotts, no public outcry, and no apologies.  Frankly, the entire episode was stage-managed by the Chicago Tribune, rather than any Italian American organization.  We certainly have bigger fish to fry in the negative image department.

The media has always treated our complaints as over-reactive or overly sensitive, be they outcries about The Godfather, The Sopranos, or sitcom stereotypes.  Unlike more organized ethnic groups we can never manipulate the press nor gain its sympathy.

Our reality is that the sun will come up tomorrow and the Italian image will be exploited by some corporation or filmmaker for fun and profit. -JLM

3 thoughts on “The Joke that Backfired”

  1. With the Super Bowl just a few weeks away, I am reminded of all of the blatantly anti-Italian commercials I have seen (some of which will live on forever via You Tube, such as the infamous Pepsi ad). My assessment is that these ads are now much less frequent, and much less obvious, but I will be anxiously waiting to see what this year’s Super Bowl will bring (prior to the award of the Lombardi Trophy, of course).

  2. John Mancini’s commentary is painfully true. The media and some Italian-Americans have no problem condemning racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. And they should. But when it pertains to bigotry or stereotypes directed toward Italian-Americans, the outrage is often absent altogether, or as Mr. Mancini points out, it dissipates rapidly. Why? Prejudice is prejudice, a slur is a slur, it doesn’t matter who the victim or victims are. One explanation is that stereotypes and caricatures of Italian-Americans and Italians are so ubiquitous, that they aren’t even recognized as insults or negative depictions. No outcry, no boycotts. “Unlike more organized ethnic groups we can never manipulate the press nor gain its sympathy,” Mr. Mancini says. However, in order to manipulate the press or gain its sympathy, there has to be a cohesive message sent to the perpetrators from a cross section of the aggrieved group. No dissenters, no apologists! This is not a free speech issue. Ask the Anti-Defamation League league or the NAACP. Those organizations have correctly and courageously, made it socially unacceptable to be anti-Semitic or racist. In 2018, apparently, it is socially acceptable to be anti-Italian. Jokes unacceptable! Outcry necessary! Apologies mandatory!
    Anthony Vecchione

  3. Due to the graceless age we live in, it is my observation that these stereotypes are morphing into images that do not require disdain anymore. This could be a contributing factor as to why individuals like ourselves are labeled “overly sensitive”. As we have discussed, it still begs the question as to why we are not allowed to include and portray
    an intellectual attachment to our heritage instead of an exclusively emotional one. With Bill Deblasio sanctioning “Godfather’s Pizza” et al, we are permanently embedded into this socially acceptable stamp of approval.

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