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Friday, Nov 15 2013 10:30 PM

Billboard portraying soldier and Muslim woman coming to Bakersfield

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    By Photo by Craig Sotres

    This billboard, which first appeared on a high-traffic section of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, is drawing social media remarks from the public. Now, a spokesman says, the billboard is coming to an undisclosed location in Bakersfield in early December as part of a larger national campaign.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

An American soldier in uniform. A Muslim woman in his embrace. A glittering diamond on her left ring finger.

All to pitch an anti-snoring product?

If the billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles was designed to attract attention and get people talking, it has certainly succeeded, especially online with thousands of comments logged in the past two weeks on various social media sites and in response to related news stories.

Now the billboard image is slated to come to Bakersfield next month, say representatives of the Camarillo-based company that makes SnoreStop, a throat spray the company says reduces snoring among people who have used the product.

The idea of the #betogether ad campaign is to keep couples together by offering a solution to snoring. Even couples many see as opposites.

"We really wanted to find and showcase couples you don't always see in mainstream advertising circles," said Melody Devemark, a spokeswoman and member of the family owned company.

These sorts of married couples are not figments of some advertising director's imagination, she said. "We've had couples approach us to say, 'Thank you. We do exist.'"

The creators of the ad say it was inspired by a real couple.

Social media users and news consumers have reacted to the ad with compliments and encouragement as well as criticism and condemnation.

"I think this picture is awesome and hope that SnoreStop does not take it off their billboards... It is an advertising gimmick that is working," said Facebook user Lynn Sherman.

Some said the ad went a long way to dispel common stereotypes.

"It's just two people accepting each other," John W Bouteiller said on Facebook.

But others suggested any positive portrayal of a Muslim is an insult to members of the U.S. armed forces.

"This is foul & you obviously know no one who has been to Iraq & served or is suffering with PTSD," said Rebecca Toomey.

Jo Anne Letourneau asserted that Muslim women may not wear nail polish like the actor in the photo: "She would get her hands chopped off for that!" Letourneau wrote.

Emad Meerza, the amir, or elected community leader of the Islamic Shoura Council of Bakersfield, the governing body that oversees the Ming Avenue mosque and other local mosques, called Letourneau's assertion "ridiculous."

However, a Muslim woman who wears a niqab, a head scarf that covers most of her face -- as does the model in the SnoreStop ad -- would likely not wear polish on her nails.

It's about achieving a "higher state of modesty," Meerza said, which is sacred in Islam.

She would also be unlikely to display the level of physical closeness to her husband in public, as shown by the couple in the ad.

However, cultural norms can vary somewhat in different locations and among different traditions.

"The educated Muslim would likely see the couple (in the ad) as actors, not Muslims," he said.

In general, however, Meerza views the image as a generally positive one, especially in an environment in which negative stereotypes and misinterpretations are common. The image is also a recognition that there are millions of Muslims in the United States of all races and national origins, he said. They are our neighbors and coworkers, our doctors and grocers and members of our armed services.

Paul Evans, the solider featured in the billboard, is a member of the armed forces, Devemark said.

"I am super proud to be a part of this campaign," Evans said in a statement. "I'm aware of the controversy and, in fact, I am in the military to fight for this very right to express oneself in this country."

Whether one considers the image provocative or not, a hot potato or a big yawn, it's probably wise to keep one thing in mind.

It's an ad for snore spray.

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