Nov. 13, 2013 at 2:56 PM ET
A billboard featuring an American soldier with his arm wrapped tightly around a Muslim woman is turning heads — but not necessarily for the sleep aid it's selling.
The ad features a married couple in an embrace, the woman wearing a garment, a niqab, that only reveals her eyes. "SnoreStop, keeping you together" and "#betogether" are the only words on the ad, which doesn't include any pictures of SnoreStop's nasal sprays or tablets.
Green Pharmaceuticals, the California-based company that sells SnoreStop, said it purposely created a provocative ad, one that would promote tolerance, inclusion and acceptance.
"Our product is for couples and we thought, 'Why not feature a diverse couple or a couple you normally don’t see in advertising?" Melody Devemark, the company's vice president of communications, told TODAY.com.
"We’re approaching 2014. In advertising, you’re still seeing the same kinds of people, mostly Caucasian, sometimes an Asian or somebody of mixed race, but it doesn’t really reflect society and the people living in this country, which is not this white wash scheme it might have been 50 years ago."
The company unveiled the ad on Oct. 28 in Los Angeles along the iconic Sunset Boulevard, but the billboard will soon hover above freeways in San Diego, Chicago, Houston and New York. It hoped to place the ads in additional locations but has run into resistance from billboard companies that have turned them down over the ad's content and its recent controversy.
Online reaction has been fierce from all sides. Some have called the ad offensive and an insult to the military. Others say it unnecessarily raises anti-Muslim sentiment.
“I will not be buying anything you make. This is totally off the mark and I find it highly offensive,” Edward LaPato wrote on SnoreStop’s Facebook page.
In an op-ed for British publication The Guardian, Aseel Machi called the ad racist.
“As an Iraqi, when I see a man dressed in camouflage and matching hat with a Muslim woman in his arms, I think of the atrocities committed against not only men, but women and children, during the brutal years of ‘democracy and liberation’ that ravaged my country,” she said.
But supporters applauded the #betogether effort to champion diversity. Some said they were more offended by the negative reaction the ad has received.
“It angers me how closed minded people are,” Christina Watts wrote on Facebook.
“Anybody that finds this ad offensive or a ‘slap in the face of our troops’ are just plain ignorant,” added Scott A. Norby.
Others just want to know what the couple in the ad have to do with snoring.
Devemark provided this answer, after explaining that SnoreStop is made for couples, including those like the one in the billboard ad.
"Couples like this do exist and a lot of people have to fight to be together and sometimes they let a little thing like snoring keep them apart," she said. "We want people to stay together and SnoreStop can help you stay together."
Devemark said the couple in the ad was inspired by a real-life couple who is close friends with Paul Evans, the model and actual U.S. serviceman featured in the photograph.
“As soldier, that’s really what we fight for, right there, our freedoms,” Evans said in a YouTube video posted on SnoreStop's website. Evans explains how he faced similar intolerance growing up in the South when he had a black girlfriend.
“We just want that equality. … Anyone should be with who they want to be with. That’s really what it’s all about," he said.
Devemark said her company is not trying to "desensitize America" with its ad, or "bring Islam to the country," as critics have accused.
"We're just basically putting a spotlight on couples that exist in reality. It’s not some kind of made up fantasy of these two people who could never be together," she said.
"When I look at the image, I don’t see something menacing. It's not an ad of a half-naked woman selling pills that will make your sex life better," she said. "It's something you normally don’t see everyday, but it also makes people think, 'Why are they using this image and not one of their product?' It makes people think a little bit beyond the image, and what the message is.
"And the message is, snoring effects every couple in the same exact way."