By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES, Jan 30 (Reuters) - 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.
"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.
"What message is Coke sending with this?" asked Abed Ayoub, ADC's director of legal and policy affairs. "By not including the Arab in the race, it is clear that the Arab is held to a different standard when compared to the other characters in the commercial," he said.
CBS declined comment. Coca-Cola spokeswoman Lauren Thompson said Coke took a "cinematic" approach with the ad, employing the characters as a nod to movies of the past.
"Coca-Cola is an inclusive brand enjoyed by all demographics," she said in an email. "We illustrate our core values, from fun and refreshment to happiness, inspiration and optimism across all of our marketing communications."
Ayoub said ADC intended to contact Coke and CBS Corp on Thursday to "hopefully start a dialog."
"I want to know why this happened and how can we fix this if possible before Sunday," he said.
The ADC garnered attention back in 1992 when it complained that lyrics in the Walt Disney animated film "Aladdin" were racist.
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.
Ayoub 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 Ayoub.
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.