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

by Steve Weinstein
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.


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