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ROME (Reuters) - When pasta king Guido Barilla found himself pilloried on social media for saying he would never use a gay family in his advertising, rival pasta maker Buitoni was quick to capitalize.
A picture on its Facebook page of an open door looking out onto a courtyard featured the caption: "At Buitoni's house, there's a place for everyone."
It was a stark demonstration of the rising power of social media. Barilla's comments to a medium-sized Italian radio station on Wednesday quickly became a global public relations disaster with a likely knock-on effect on sales.
The comments that he would "never" do an ad "with a homosexual family" to a station that has barely more than 2 million daily listeners spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook, sparking worldwide calls to boycott products by the world's biggest pasta maker on Thursday.
The outcry will weigh on U.S. sales in the short term, and Barilla's immediate response to the uproar was "muddled and odd", Ashley McCown, a crisis communications expert at Solomon McCown in Boston, told Reuters.
"In the U.S. people want to feel good about the things they buy and who they buy them from," she said.
In a written statement on Thursday, Barilla said he was sorry "if I offended some people".
Late on Friday the 55-year-old company chairman posted a video on Facebook saying he respected everyone, "including gays and their families".
Speaking English, the great-grandson of the man who founded the privately owned Barilla company more than 130 years ago pledged to meet "representatives" of those he offended.
"I have heard the countless reactions to my words in the world which have depressed and saddened me. It is clear that I have a lot to learn about the lively debate concerning the evolution of the family," he said.
Seeking to boost sales outside of crisis-hit Italy, Barilla has recently focused on expanding in the United States, its second biggest pasta market, by introducing microwaveable meals and more ready-made sauces.
Barilla's radio comments came after the interviewer asked him about accusations this week from Laura Boldrini, president of the lower house of parliament, that Italian advertising was full of gender stereotyping.
Barilla, whose ads often picture mothers serving their families at the dinner table, disagreed, and was then asked whether he would feature a gay family.
After saying he would not, he spoke at length about his belief in the "classic family", adding however that he supported gay marriage, which is illegal in Italy, but not adoptions by gay couples.
In the United States, gay marriage is legal in 13 states and, unlike in Italy, the gay rights movement continues to build momentum and break down barriers.
"I'm Italian, I'm gay, I'm married legally to a man, I have three adopted children. I had Barilla pasta for dinner last night. Today, tomorrow and forever more I will choose another brand of pasta. Good bye Barilla! You lose!!!" David De Maria wrote on Barilla's U.S. Facebook page.
The controversy generated Internet satires. BuzzFeed featured a picture showing heterosexual couples lovingly eating pasta together with the words: "Spaghetti is straight".
Another image posted widely on Twitter and Facebook showed the trademark blue Barilla pasta box with the letters "Bigotoni" on it, rather than "Rigatoni".
While Barilla's comments were condemned by most, others said the gay community was over-reacting.
"We may not agree with him but he is just expressing his opinion and doing it in a respectful way," said JasonD79, who said he was gay, in reaction to a news story on Facebook. "He is not saying gays can't work for them or anything, he is just saying he will not do an ad with a gay family."
Only time will tell how much the boycott will hurt Barilla, which saw profits tumble 21 percent in 2012.
"In the short term, it is a threat to sales. What's yet to be seen is, is there really going to be a long-term impact?" McCown said.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Xavier Briand