Social Media SmackDown: Elton John, Dolce & Gabbana, The First Amendment and a Brand in Peril

Dolce & Gabanna is a famous Italian fashion house, founded thirty years ago by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.  The company has been a significant player in the fashion industry for decades, dressing celebrities and operating almost 300 stores in 40 countries around the world.

This weekend, singer Elton John called for a boycott of the house, in direct response to statements made by the company’s founders in an article in Panorama Magazine.

In the article, Dolce was quoted as saying: “You are born to a mother and father – or at least that’s how it should be…  I call children of chemistry, synthetic children.”

Though the anti-gay and anti-IVF views expressed by the company’s founders aren’t new, they hadn’t received much attention, and hadn’t gone viral on social media.

Elton John, openly gay and the father of two young children conceived through IVF, posted this message on his Instragram account:

“How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’. And shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfill their dream of having children.  Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.  I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana”

Gabbana’s first response was a post on Elton John’s Instagram page calling him a fascist.  (This post has been deleted.)

Dolce & Gabbana later issued a formal statement that said: “We firmly believe in democracy and the fundamental principle of freedom of expression that upholds it.  We talked about our way of seeing reality, but it was never our intention to judge other people’s choices.  We do believe in freedom and love.”

The fashion duo’s belief in freedom of expression is being put to the test.  The #BoycottDolceGabbana hashtag is trending on Instagram and Twitter, and is being popularized by celebrities, the media and the Twitterverse.  Fans and critics of D&G’s point of view are confronting each other on Stefano Gabbana’s own Instagram page.  Tennis legend Martina Navratilova reportedly tweeted: “wow – I had no idea.  It will be interesting to see if this ridiculousness hurts them in the bank.”

Can a controversial point of view and the power of social media bring down a business?  Or harm it in a substantial way?

The answer is most certainly “yes.”

Time will tell the true impact of the #BoycottDolceGabanna campaign. Sir Elton and friends might have the clout to sustain a harmful boycott.  Or perhaps the social media storm will die down and be forgotten.  Or perhaps Dolce & Gabbana will figure out how to turn lemons to lemonade.

In a 2011 article, D&G was lauded as having social media expertise:

“Social media networks put the brand and its clients in direct contact and all feedback, be it positive or negative, are taken into consideration from the labels’ side for improvement of the brand, according to Dolce & Gabbana.”

Dolce & Gabbana’s marketing team sure has its work cut out for it this week.

The lesson here for business owners and entrepreneurs is this: remember that just as social media is a huge asset, it is also a huge risk.  A public statement of an unpopular belief, perceived unfair customer service, or a leaked company memo can all go viral, and deeply impact a brand’s reputation.  You might have systems in place to use social media to promote your brand, but do you have systems in place to effectively and immediately resolve problems?