The Russian supermarket chain VkusVill ran an online ad last week that included images of lesbians, describing their family as “different but equally charming.” But the company quickly yanked the ad and issued an “apology” in response to homophobic hate messages and threats of a boycott.
Human Rights Watch published this commentary by Tanya Lokshina, associate director of its Europe and Central Asia Division:
Supermarket Chain in Russia Acts LGBT-Inclusive, Then Regrets It
VkusVill Pulls Ad Featuring Lesbian Customers
Last week, VkusVill, a prominent Russian food market chain, ran an online advertisement entitled “Family Happiness Recipe” that featured, among others, a family that included several lesbian women. In Russia, where discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is written into law, the boldness of VkusVill’s gesture cannot be underestimated. The chain posted the ad with an 18+ age marker to avoid liability under Russia’s “anti-gay propaganda” law, emphasized in the opening paragraph that “not talking about our customers’ real families would be an act of hypocrisy” and described the featured families as “different but equally charming.”
Like many other Muscovites, I often shop at VkusVill, and seeing my “local” become the first major Russian company to stand up for diversity felt great. Many friends were also quite excited, peppering their social media pages with “Go, VkusVill!” and enthusiastically describing their favorite food items sold by the chain.
Our excitement was short lived. On July 4, three days after publishing the ad, VkusVill took it down, replacing it with a letter of apology signed by its founder and 11 senior executives. “The item, which had been posted here, seriously hurt the feelings of many of our customers, staff, and providers. We regret this happened and consider the publication a mistake of ours, and a manifestation of unprofessionalism of several staff members. The objective of our company is to offer our customers fresh and tasty products, not to publish items that reflect some political and social views…”
The apology was apparently triggered by a barrage of hate messages the company received as well as boycott threats from homophobic customers, including local politicians. The ad’s protagonists also faced offensive comments and even death threats on social media, which law enforcement is apparently not investigating.
It is unclear whether Russian authorities directly pressured the company. VkusVill declined to answer media questions about this. VkusVill has yet to respond to our request for comment. In any case, seeing the company exercise self-censorship and rescind its progressive gesture on equality and inclusivity is not surprising in a country where the authorities cultivate homophobia instead of investigating homophobic threats and holding those who make them to account.