By Simeon Tegel

LIMA, Peru — When it comes to messaging — subconscious or otherwise — it may be hard to beat the latest ad from one of the leading retail stores in Peru, which has led to a national conversation over issues of racism and bias, particularly in media.

The 30-second online spot, for mattress brand Drimer being sold at Saga Falabella outlets across the Andean nation, features two young roommates, one white and unusually concerned with hygiene, and the other, “Valeria,” who is black.

In the ad, the white girl sings the praises of her mattress, noting, as Valeria comes to sit on her bed, "I like everything to be neat, but above all, I love my bed to be neat and that it smells good."

She then says one thing about the mattress is that it "doesn't absorb bad odors." She then whispers to the camera, “But don’t tell Valeria.”

The two girls are then seen chatting and viewing a smart phone together in bed. The voice-over from the white girl concludes, “Despite being different, Valeria and I are super friends.”

The ad prompted a wave of outrage on social media, and Saga Falbella withdrew it. The store tweeted an apologetic statement highlighting that the spot did not reflect its “organizational culture” and that at the Chilean-owned chain, “We value diversity and promote respect for differences.” The ad was created and shown in Peru.

Drimer issued a similar statement on its Facebook page, saying, “We reiterate our support for everyone who, day-to-day, fights against inequality.”

Marco Avilés, a Peruvian author who writes about race, said that if the ad had no racist intent, "there was certainly negligence."

"You don't have to intend to be racist to be racist," he said. "Perhaps the most surprising thing about this ad is that it has passed through all the filters at the advertising agency and the store, yet it didn’t occur to anyone that this might be interpreted as racist, as an attack on a community."

Monica Carillo, a poet and activist who heads the Afro-Peruvian nonprofit Lundu, said, “The people who run these companies don’t have the proximity, experience or interest in understanding the multiracial public that is contemporary Peru.”

Other critics were more brutal, as memes criticizing the ad went viral. One cartoonist, with the business newspaper Gestión, mocked up a Saga Falabella ad selling Ku Klux Klan-style white capes and hoods.

The government’s anti-discrimination website, Alert Against Racism, noted that “any act of discrimination based on the ethnic or cultural identity of a person or group of persons is prohibited by the Constitution” and that Afro-Peruvians are a particularly vulnerable demographic.

Saga Falabella's short-lived ad is hardly the first time that Peru’s advertising and TV industries have used images and narratives that many here find flagrantly discriminatory.

Just before soccer's World Cup this summer, a popular daytime show on America TV, one of Peru’s two most important networks, set off a storm of controversy when it invited a plastic surgeon to recommend procedures for members of the national soccer team. The doctor was particularly keen that several of the players, of Afro-Peruvian and Amerindian descent, have nose jobs.

Meanwhile, Frecuencia Latina, the country’s other principal TV network, continues to air two characters that critics — including the United Nations and Peruvian government — have long regarded as profoundly racist. One is Negro Mama, a grotesque caricature of a black man, and the other is Paisana Jacinta, an indigenous woman or “cholita,” portrayed as out of her element in the capital city of Lima.

Advertising in Peru — and much of Latin America — has long been viewed as particularly biased, often using not just white but blonde models to sell products to predominantly dark-skinned populations in a region riven by deep racial fault lines, with the political and economic elites being largely white while the majorities in most countries are of Amerindian and African ancestry.

Approximately one in three Latin Americans — around 150 million people — are descended from African slaves, according to the Organization of American States. Its human rights arm says they suffer “structural discrimination” in everything from education to the job market.

In Peru, the government has warned that 22 percent of black teenagers and 32 percent of black heads-of-households say they have been discriminated against.

“When you confront people about it, there is no sense of remorse," said Carrillo, who is now based in New York and has traveled extensively throughout Latin America. "There is no social sanction for racism in Peru."

Yet that the mattress ad provoked scandal may be a sign of progress in itself, Avilés noted.

“Ten years ago this happened all the time and there was no big public outcry,” he says. “Peru is progressing, but it is slow and painful.”

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