WASHINGTON – If there’s such a thing as an old-fashioned billboard going viral, it’s happened to a poster ad showing a U.S. soldier and a Muslim woman embracing.
After weeks of slowing traffic on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, the billboard is now up in downtown Chicago, where cars honk and passers-by stop to stare.
But there will be no similar sensation in New York City.
Clear Channel, citing “community standards” at a site not far from the ground zero memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, refused to let the photo run on its billboard at Times Square. An ad agency could not find other billboard owners willing to display the controversial image near the spot where the illuminated ball slowly drops every New Year’s Eve to a throng at Broadway and Seventh Avenue.
The place where most people have seen the billboard is online. With widely divergent responses ranging from praise for its diversity to derisive and, at times, disturbing anti-Islam slurs, the striking photo has sparked thousands of digital postings, tweets, comments, Facebook entries and other expressions in the Internet universe.
The billboard, which advertises an anti-snoring device made by a California company, shows a soldier in an Army camouflage uniform with an American flag patch on his right shoulder and a black beret on his head. His left arm is draped around the shoulders of a woman wearing a black niqab headdress that reveals only her eyes. Her left hand is on his chest, a wedding band on her ring finger.
Next to the couple is the product name SnoreStop, with the slogan, “Keeping you together,” beneath. The Twitter hashtag #betogether floats alongside the soldier’s beret in the billboard’s left corner.
William Andres, an Iraq war veteran who now lives in Clinton, Ill., believes that the billboard’s message is important, and he reached out to the company to applaud its efforts
“It brings to life some of the issues Muslims face here in America,” Andres told McClatchy. “A lot of people associate Muslims with terrorists. They have the wrong idea.”
Andres, though, knows from personal experience how raw the billboard is for some Americans, even as others celebrate its bridging of cultures.
After six years of Air Force service, the senior airman left the military in 2006 and took a job with a security contractor in the Middle East. In Dubai, he began dating an Iranian woman named Negar; they married in August 2011 and have an 18-month-old daughter.
While most of their relatives and families have welcomed their union, Andres said they field a lot of questions in a small Midwestern town where he said a Christian war veteran with an Islamic Persian woman “is kind of an oddity.”
Andres can handle curiosity. He has no patience for the kind of hostility he’s seen expressed online in response to the SnoreStop photo.
“As a veteran, I’m one of the most patriotic people I know,” Andres said. “But in no way, shape or form is that billboard offensive to military veterans or to the fallen individuals of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
McClatchy emailed, tweeted or called a dozen people who’d criticized the billboard, some of them in overtly racist terms, but none responded.
A typical negative comment, posted on the company’s website at snorestop.com, reads: “If you were the LAST company on … EARTH , I would not buy from you. I hope a Muslim cuts your head off.”
A positive comment reads: “I am a lesbian, been with my partner for 33 years now, and it is so nice to see an ad with diversity, and making it OK. Thank you so much!!!”
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the American-Muslim Council, an Islamic civil rights group in Washington, said the billboard has evoked a fascinating mix of reactions in his religious and ethnic community.
“Those who support it see it as a Muslim soldier and his wife and say, ‘What could be wrong with that?’ ” Hooper said. “Those who are critical view it as an exploitation of the shock value of seeing this juxtaposition of a soldier and a Muslim woman. We’re choosing to take the most positive interpretation of the ad.”