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MacDougall: Does Coca-Cola Really Want to Start an Arab Uprising?

The Coca-Cola Co.’s latest Super Bowl commercial very well could become a marketing blunder of epic proportions. It also could become something much worse than that.

The commercial that I have just previewed is not just likely to kill sales throughout the Arab world. It could end up killing Americans.

Our elected representatives in Washington have an obligation to try to prevent that from happening.

Important Arab groups already have reacted with outrage over this commercial’s depiction of a helpless Arab on his camel being outraced by cowboys, Vegas show girls and wild and crazy road warriors in the pursuit of a giant Coke bottle. And so far we have seen only a “teaser” of the ad.

If it runs during the Super Bowl, the repercussions could well be as deadly as the riots that have occurred whenever cartoonists or authors have appeared to insult Islam.

Forget that Coca-Cola might become a hated symbol throughout the Arab world. Only we shareholders will suffer when their sales disappear in the Middle East. What really matters is that this supposedly “clever” commercial will insult the Arab world during America’s largest event and during one of the most fragile and tense moments in the history of Arab-American relations.

It seems strange that a savvy marketer such as The Coca-Cola Co., which has to be sensitive to the tastes, whims, prejudices and values of all its customers across the globe, could somehow depict an Arab as a helpless loser. Did no one in Atlanta read about the riots and killings that occurred in September in Pakistan, Lebanon, Malaysia and Libya over a film trailer called “Innocence of Muslims”?

Did the Coca-Cola folks not know what happened after a French cartoonist decided to draw the image of Muhammad? Have they never heard of Salman Rushdie?

Perhaps the most effective way to persuade The Coca-Cola Co. not to run this ad during Sunday’s Super Bowl would be for a few concerned phone calls today from members of Congress and State Department employees who are deeply troubled about images that could further destabilize the Arab-American relationship.

We do not lack for a precedent for this sort of intervention. Think back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Kennedy administration persuaded The New York Times to delay breaking its story about Soviet missiles en route to Cuba.

As someone who once worked with The Coca-Cola Co., I know that the company is highly sensitive to congressional criticism. It is unlikely that the company intended to insult anyone with the commercial. My own experience tells me that the Coca-Cola people and their agency somehow became so involved in the day-to-day production of this complex commercial that no one saw the danger signs.

It seems to be a spoof of desert films. Perhaps the helpless Arab and his camel were intended to depict Lawrence of Arabia. Who knows?

Now that many of us, including important Arab organizations, have seen the commercial and been horrified by what I assume is an unintended insult to Arabs, we can only hope that good sense finally prevails in Atlanta and that this Super Bowl spot that Coca-Cola seemed so proud to preview winds up, in its entirety, on the cutting room floor. The company can always run its Polar Bear spot. It generates nothing but smiles.

Malcolm MacDougall is a partner at Prides Crossing Strategic Writers Group in New York. He was creative director of the Gerald Ford Election Campaign and president and creative director of Lintas Advertising, the agency that first introduced Diet Coke.

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