Arab-American groups have sharply criticized a Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad depicting an Arab walking through the desert with a camel, and one group said it would ask the beverage giant to change it before CBS airs the game on Sunday before an expected audience of more than 100 million U.S. viewers.
"Why is it that Arabs are always shown as either oil-rich sheiks, terrorists, or belly dancers?" said Warren David, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC.
Coca-Cola released an online teaser of the commercial last week, showing the Arab walking through a desert. He soon sees cowboys, Las Vegas showgirls and a motley crew fashioned after the marauders of the apocalyptic "Mad Max" film race by him to reach a gigantic bottle of Coke.
In its ad, Coke asks viewers to vote online on which characters should win the race. The online site does not allow a vote for the Arab character.
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"The Coke commercial for the Super Bowl is racist, portraying Arabs as backward and foolish Camel Jockeys, and they have no chance to win in the world," Imam Ali Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies, said in an email.
On Thursday, Coca-Cola said it held what it described as a "productive conversation" with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in which it apologized and explained that it did not mean the ad to be derogatory. It also said that it didn't plan to change the commercial.
"We did express regret that the ad had been misunderstood," Coca-Cola spokeswoman Lauren Thompson told Reuters in an email. "We are very concerned by these allegations and in no way is our ad meant to be derogatory to any group."
The committee said it was pleased with the company's apology and explanation.
Ronald Goodstein, professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, said he was surprised by the image as well. "If Coke's vision is to be an arm's distance away from every customer, why would they want to offend the Arab world?" said Goodstein.
Abed Ayoub, director of legal and policy affairs for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said the commercial could harm Coke's business with the Arab community.
"Coke should understand and respect their consumers and have a better understanding of the market they are sharing," he said.
The company has a large market share in the Middle East and North Africa, he noted, and many convenience stores and other retail outlets in the United States that offer Coke are owned by Arab-Americans.