- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

There will be no onion dip at the altar rail, courtesy of a persistent religious anti-defamation group that managed to vanquish one of the worlds largest manufacturers in just three days.

This week, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights took on Unilever, which employs some 300,000 people and sells an annual $46 billion worth of personal care and food products, including the innocuous Lipton´s Onion Soup Mix — long a staple of truly cozy cuisine.

But in a curious lapse of judgment, Unilever ran an ad in a New York newspaper on June 13 that showed five people about to take Communion, a holy rite in the Catholic Church. Grinning and goofy, one man holds a bowl of Lipton onion dip, intent upon scooping it up with a Communion wafer rather than corn chip.

"That ad took the heart and soul of our religion and trivialized it," said League President William Donohue yesterday. "We complained."

On June 15, Mr. Donohue contacted Unilever, calling the ad an insult to Catholics and "the height of corporate arrogance." He was not alone. The New York Archdiocese and scores of consumers also damned the depiction.

By June 18, the League received a letter of apology from Unilever Chairman Matthew Shattock.

"The decision to place the ad was an error in judgment on our part," Mr. Shattock wrote, adding the company had "taken steps necessary to prevent a re-occurrence. We deeply regret any distress this ad has caused."

"Unilever responded quickly and professionally to us," Mr. Donohue said. "And in the bigger picture, I am encouraged by the fact that there is a greater awareness and readiness among Christians to complain about offensive material. The time of just taking it all in silence is ending."

As religious images continue to surface in the commercial marketplace, however, distinguishing blasphemy from effective sales pitch can be a tricky business.

In recent years, for example, Volvo took heat from consumers and media alike for claiming their car "could save your soul," as did Kohler for using Michelangelo´s famous "hand of God" in a toilet ad. In recent months, though, a Mercedes-Benz TV commercial that showed a pair of the swank autos rolling aboard Noah´s ark with assorted fauna did not warrant serious protest.

"In our experience, corporate and entertainment concerns were more sensitive, because they know they have public vulnerability," Mr. Donohue said. "We have received personal calls of apology from Jay Leno and Whoopi Goldberg after we cited some of their material."

In the past, the Catholic League has battled with ABC, Fox, Disney, the New Yorker, Salon and other media organizations over content offensive to Catholics.

They have railed against the Brooklyn Museum for a painting of the Virgin Mary that included elephant dung and Florida Atlantic and Indiana universities for producing the play "Corpus Christi," which depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual. The Go-Gos, a female pop group, has drawn the group´s ire for their new recording "God Bless the Go-Gos," which shows the members dressed as Virgin Mary characters.

"The worst, the most clearly arrogant of the bunch are the artists and academics," Mr. Donohue said. "They use the First Amendment as a shield, they give their standard 'free speech´ arguments."

Meanwhile, the American advertising community itself does not offer any direct protocols for the use of religious imagery in commercial content. The American Advertising Federation´s code of ethics, for example, only offers generic advice like "Advertising shall be free of statements, illustrations or implications which are offensive to good taste or public decency."

The British Society of Advertising, however, is more explicit.

After hundreds of people complained when the London Times ran a photo of a bikini-clad woman crucified on a cross, the society supported claims that the image was "blasphemous."

The group also protested a 1998 Heineken poster that showed a nativity scene under the words, "IT´S A GIRL."

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