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updated: 12/5/2013 5:40 AM

Ad catches eye, but diversity event aims at heart

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  • This billboard that went up Wednesday in Chicago is based on a real married couple. Meant to sell an anti-snoring spray, it also sparks debates about diversity.

    This billboard that went up Wednesday in Chicago is based on a real married couple. Meant to sell an anti-snoring spray, it also sparks debates about diversity.
    Courtesy of SnoreStop

  • Video: Story of billboard couple


Like all billboards, the one that went up Wednesday in Chicago is designed to grab our attention.

It shows a U.S. soldier in uniform embracing a woman wearing a wedding ring and a niqab, the traditional Muslim garb that reveals only her eyes. Under the hashtag #betogether, the couple are advertising an anti-snoring spray, but they are sparking a sometimes heated discussion about religion, ethnicity, patriotism and diversity.

Social media reactions come from offended people who find it "atrocious" and "disgusting," delighted fans who call it "awesome" and "wonderful," critics who think it panders, and a few who brand it LMAO funny. So what does the staff at the Council on American Islamic Relations think about the billboard?

"There's a lot of ambivalence," says Maryam Arain, senior communications coordinator for CAIR Chicago. On one hand, "it is a picture of an Islam woman not doing anything bad or being oppressed," Arain says.

So that's a nice change from the depictions of Muslim women as terrorist supporters or slave-like victims of "Death to America" fanatics. But using a link between the military and a Muslim as a tool to shock people isn't ideal.

"We don't like the idea of an American and a Muslim being presented" as things that don't normally go together, Arain says. "There are Muslims in the Army."

Just as advertisers through the years have drawn attention to their products by featuring biracial couples or gay couples or couples with disabilities, the billboard for SnoreStop is designed to be controversial.

"We really wanted to find and showcase couples you don't always see in mainstream advertising circles," Melody Devemark, spokeswoman for the family-owned SnoreStop company, says in a news release sent to the media.

The idea was inspired by a real-life Army veteran and his Muslim wife.

"We realize that it's likely to be controversial. But our family thinks it's a beautiful story and we feel honored to be able to share it with others," Devemark says.

"I didn't think the billboard was bad at all, but it does require a little understanding," says Ray Hanania, comedian, journalist and one of the featured speakers at Friday's 2nd Annual Images and Perceptions Diversity Conference in Lombard.

"A lot of people assume Arabs would get mad right off the bat, because the only time you hear from us is when we complain."

Or maybe that's the only time the media listens to Arabs. As a Palestinian married to a Jewish woman, Hanania is a big fan of diversity and conversations about such issues.

"Diversity doesn't have an ethnic face. It's really varied," Hanania says.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. at The Carlisle, 435 E. Butterfield Road in Lombard.

Providing academic credits for therapists, counselors, teachers and social workers, the conference includes presentations from University of Chicago professor John Woods, actor Sayed Badreya of "Don't Mess with the Zohan," performer Dionna Griffin-Irons and lawyer Maaria Mozaffar, founder of The Skinless Project, which advocates for women of all races and religions.

Including African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Arabs and other minority groups in the conference gives everyone a greater understanding of the diversity issues facing this very diverse nation, Hanania says.

"If you don't have an understanding, it makes it hard to be tolerant," Hanania says.

Even a billboard that might drum up more complaints than praise serves a purpose.

"It's not a horrible way to start a conversation," says CAIR's Arain. "We like dialogue."

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