Barry Shlachter, 7UP Ad Draws Criticism Over Prison Images, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 4, 2002.

All 7UP executives wanted were edgy, off-beat ads laced with humor that would break through the cacophonous clutter of TV commercials.

A spot in a prison setting has given them more edge than they might have bargained for.

A 7UP pitchman hands out the fizzy lemon-lime drink to eager hands darting through prison bars, then refuses to bend over to pick up a dropped can. Later, he looks uncomfortable seated on a cell bunk with a bearded inmate who places a heavily tattooed arm around him.

Last month, a Los Angeles-based group called Stop Prisoner Rape, or SPR, said it finds nothing funny about the references to sexual assault behind bars.

Saying it has support from more than 80 other like-minded organizations, SPR said Plano, Texas,-based Dr Pepper/Seven Up has refused to stop airing the ad. SPR said it is now appealing to the soft drink maker’s parent corporation, Britain’s Cadbury-Schweppes, to pull it.

The spot, which debuted during the February telecast of the Grammy Awards, is scheduled to run 120-150 times through the end of the year, often on youth-oriented programs, SPR complained. It features the comedian Godfrey Danchimah, who uses only his first name professionally.

“No company would make jokes about rape outside of the prison context,” said Lara Stemple, 30, a Harvard-trained attorney and executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape. “Men and women are routinely raped and sexually brutalized in prisons throughout the country.”

Stemple said there are no plans to boycott 7UP, saying that SPR mainly wants to use the issue to educate the public.

“It’s time to stop the joking and start taking sexual violence against men and women behind bars seriously,” she said.

Michael Martin, chief spokesman for the soft drink company, said the 7UP’s sole aim was to create a humorous commercial. Rounds of test screenings confirmed that the average person would not take the rape references seriously, Martin said.

He said the company has received a “handful of complaints and a handful saying they love” the commercial.

“For anybody who is offended, we apologize, because obviously it is not our intent to offend anybody,” he said.

But he said 7UP has no plans to kill the spot.

“We understand this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed,” Martin said. “We believe the appropriate people to address it are people are in the criminal justice and corrections systems.”

Martin expressed irritation with Stemple, who cited the commercial during an interview with a New York newspaper. The paper was reporting on a Texas inmate who sued the state prison system for not protecting him from what he alleges is being sold into “sexual slavery.”

“The fact of the matter is that they have a right to bring attention to the issue, it’s a serious issue,” Martin said. “By using 7UP, it gives them a platform to put something out now. If they didn’t have the commerical, they’d really have nothing to talk about now.”

This is not the first time Dr Pepper/Seven Up has been in hot water with interest groups.

The company was attacked by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, for using chimps as highway patrol cops in a parody of the old “CHIPS” TV show. They pull over the series star, Erik Estrada, who was driving a banana truck. The group opposes exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes.