Emily Huber, 7-Up Bubbles Over Prison Rape, Motherjones.com, May 13, 2002.

A new 7-Up commercial featuring the soft drink's spokesman pitching the product in prison may be a hit with focus groups, but human rights and prison reform advocates aren't laughing.

Representatives from a broad coalition of rights groups say that the ad, which includes jokes about prison rape, amounts to laughing at sexual assault.

"The commercial makes light of a very serious human rights issue to sell something as trivial as a soft drink," says Lara Stemple, director of the Los Angeles-based Stop Prison Rape. "People would never joke about rape outside the context of prison."

The ad, dubbed "A Captive Audience", is currently running on MTV, and is slated to air soon on Fox, UPN and the WB network. It depicts a 7-Up marketing exec doling out cans of soda to prison inmates. When the spokesman accidentally drops a can, he refuses to pick it up. At the end of the commercial, the 7-Up pitchman sits uncomfortably in a prison cell as a much larger inmate suggestively puts his arm around the spokesman's shoulder.

After the commercial debuted earlier this year, Stop Prison Rape informally asked 7-Up to reconsider running the spot.

"We hoped that we could present them with the facts, and that they would do the responsible thing," Stemple says. But 7-Up officials, citing "overwhelmingly positive feedback" from test viewers, have declined to pull the ad.

"The commercial was very well received by consumer audiences," Kyle Rose, a Dr. Pepper/7-Up, Inc. spokesperson says. While he admits that the ad is an "over-the-top" representation of prison, Rose asserts that 7-Up should not be held accountable for what goes on behind bars.

"The people who need to address this problem are in the US corrections system," he says.

When 7-Up declined to voluntarily pull the ad, Stop Prison Rape joined with 79 other organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, in a campaign to pressure the soft-drink maker to stop airing the commercial.

"Prisoner rape is commonly the subject of jokes, but by pandering to this insensitivity, your company is only perpetuating callousness regarding this horrific, widespread abuse," the group stated in a letter to executives at Dr. Pepper/7-Up, Inc. "We sincerely hope that you will remove the 'Captive Audience' commercial from cable and network television."

The controversial ad plays on the popular notion that prison rape is commonplace, but little actual research has been done to quantify how much sexual assault really takes place behind bars. One 1996 study of Midwestern prisons found 1 in 4 inmates reporting that they had been forced into sexual contact; a follow-up study found that 1 in 10 inmates said they had been raped.

The softdrink company formally responded to Stop Prison Rape's request in early May, telling the activist group they did not intend to pull the ad. While there are no plans for further action yet, Stemple says that the groups "haven't ruled out a boycott."