Italian illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli considers herself lucky to have the career she does. Each day, Olimpia is able to express herself through illustration as her actual job. She describes her role as a privilege, but she also knows it’s an immense responsibility.
“Being an illustrator means creating an artificial world in which people can have all sorts of skin colours, clothes, sizes, jobs and roles. The smallest detail of choosing a colour is an act of responsibility,” she explains. “I’m not talking about politically correct nonsense, I’m talking about being an observer of this world, realising that there are many different realities just outside our doorsteps and they are far more real than the fears projected onto them by ignorance,” the illustrator continues. “Capturing all of this is our work. Images and words have power. They create conversations like this one we’re having now.”
The conversation in question is around Olimpia’s work for Barilla, an Italian pasta brand with a controversial past that led many to boycott its products. “In 2013 Barilla’s CEO, Guido Barilla, made a statement during a radio interview on the topic of advertising. He said that Barilla wouldn’t use gay couples in its commercials because they don’t represent the traditional Italian family,” Olimpia explains for those who may not be familiar with the brand’s backstory. “The reaction was immediate. Despite his apologies, the day after, the news spread and people began to boycott Barilla products. I was one of them, and have been for quite a long time.”
Four years later in 2017, Olimpia was contacted to work with the brand on its annual event, the Pasta World Championship. “My first reaction was to say no, naturally,” she explains, but then she sat and thought about it. The illustrator considered a constructive approach to the brief she’d been sent – to create an illustration based on the concept of simplicity around the simplest recipe: a plate of Spaghetti al Pomodoro – and asked about how much freedom she’d be given. “They said plenty.”
The illustrator then set to work on a design of a loved-up female couple, sharing a plate of spaghetti. She pressed send and waited “for a response… thinking Barilla would never accept it and guess what: they did.”
Olimpia’s attempt to create an illustrational act of defiance against the brand, but under the guise of working for it, was met with open arms. “It turns out while I was protesting in my kitchen Barilla made significant progress, radically redefining its code of ethics and adjusting its internal policies,” she explains.
The company clearly saw fault with its CEOs comments and began first by “enhancing the respect for different sexual orientations, gender equality, rights of the disabled, as well as multicultural and intergenerational issues,” the illustrator discovered. The company also began working outside of its team too, collaborating with numerous organisations to support the rights of LGBTQ+ communities such as Catalyst, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and The 30% Club. Barilla additionally now supports associations which help put a stop to the homophobia its own CEO was once part of, for instance working with Spirit Day “the largest campaign against bullying and for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ youths,” explains Olimpia. On top of this, Barilla has also continually “scored 100% in the Human Rights Campaign Annual Corporate Equality Index, from 2015-2018,” the illustrator tells us.
The company’s progression obviously doesn’t make it perfect, but it does allow for a more open conversation. When Olimpia went to sit down with the brand’s team she was able to immediately address the issue and put them on the spot of providing answers. “We had a really honest and open conversation about it where I told them my disappointment,” the illustrator recalls. “They explained the aforementioned progress and shared their excitement for the illustration I’d made as it was one of the first visual signs of the company heading towards a more inclusive direction.”
Now, Olimpia’s illustration graces the box of Barilla’s spaghetti package design. Putting, not her face but her medium of expression to a brand she previously boycotted, is clearly a decision she’s made once she knew all the facts. “Do I think Barilla can still improve as a company? Yes of course,” she states.
Olimpia is also not naive. The trend of brands becoming more and more globally aware to minorities is obvious in current advertising and: “Do I think some big corporations are jumping on the ‘equality for all’ train for profit?” the illustrator asks: “Yes for course.”
On whether this is the case for Barilla, the illustrator honestly admits, “I don’t know.” But then again, she’s not expected to be a spokesperson for the brand either. What Olimpia’s work with Barilla displays is a shift in what reaction can happen if a conversation ensues between a brand and an artist. “I just think that advertising and communication can change how we feel about ourselves and others and if it’s done right, it can shape the visual language of a generation,” the illustrator describes. “That’s why the voice of artists, activists, local communities and marginalised groups are needed to help big, small brands and people to learn from their mistakes and educate themselves in order to make this world a better place.”
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