Doug Young, 7 Up Spikes TV Ad Blasted for Jail Rape Jokes, Forbes.com, May 24, 2002.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The makers of the 7 Up soft drink have yanked a TV commercial set in a prison off the air after protests from a convict rights group over its alleged jail rape allusions.

The company pulled the 30-second commercial off the airwaves Friday after the U.S. prisoner rights group, Stop Prison Rape, said the ad trivialized the "serious physical and psychological injury" inmates suffer from sexual abuse.

The ad, which was meant to be humorous, was part of a popular but controversial campaign credited with helping the 73-year-old "uncola" shed its bland image and connect with a younger audience. It was the first time 7 Up canceled an ad for objectionable content, a spokeswoman said.

"This commercial was perpetuating the kind of callousness that allows sexual abuse to continue in so many prisons virtually unchecked," said Stop Prison Rape Executive Director Lara Stemple. "We're very glad to hear that 7 Up has decided to stop sending out the message that it's OK to laugh about rape when it involves people in prison."

The spot titled "Captive Audience," created by New York-based ad agency Young & Rubicam Inc., features 7 Up pitchman Godfrey in the slammer pitching the drink to inmates.

At one point, Godfrey, a comedian who goes by the single name, is walking down a row of cells, handing out soda to each prisoner he passes, when he accidentally drops a can. "I'm not picking that up," he remarks.

In the final shot, he sits inside a cell with a tattooed inmate whose arm is draped around him. "When you drink 7 Up, everyone is your friend," Godfrey remarks, prompting the inmate to tighten his arm just a bit to Godfrey's discomfort. "OK, that's enough being friends," he says.

The prisoner rights group said men and women in prison are routinely raped and sexually brutalized, causing "serious physical and psychological injury."

"Unfortunately, jokes about rape in prison have become alarmingly common," she said. "But sexual violence is occurring in prison right now, to real people, causing real suffering."

Philippa Dworkin, a spokewoman for Dr Pepper/Seven Up, a unit of UK-based Cadbury Schweppes , said the ad, which had been airing for about two months, tested well with audiences and that no objections were made at the time.

But she acknowledged the legitimacy of Stop Prison Rape's concerns, which led to the company's Friday notification that all networks should stop airing the spot. It was still featured on the company's Web site (http://www.7up.com) as of Friday.

"We listened to what they had to say," she said. "They had some very valid points about the ad being able to be interpreted a different way from what we intended."

A recurring theme in 7 Up ads has been spoofing the extremes that soft-drink makers go to in marketing their wares, featuring enthusiastic but often inept spokesmen.

7 Up, the No. 8 soft-brank brand in the United States, saw case shipments fall about 7 percent in 2001, as growth in the whole industry stalled to less than 1 percent, according to Beverage Digest.

The lemon-lime soft-drink still ranks behind Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, the No. 5 brand, but the recent ad campaign has helped shore up performance and drawn praise, said John Sicher, editor of the industry newsletter.

"It was a brand that lost its way a bit in the mid-1990s," Sicher said. "It's my view that the brand equity is worth more now than it was five years ago."

In one earlier 7 Up commercial, that drew protests from animal activist groups, former pitchman and up-and-coming actor Orlando Jones tossed a can of 7 Up to a dog which was knocked out by the catch.

Another 7 Up ad featuring flatulence was rejected by CBS as unsuitable for airing before the Super Bowl.

Copyright 2002, Reuters News Service