When Dunkin' Donuts, the coffee and carbs chain, shot a smilingly wholesome celebrity cook for their latest latte ad, it hardly imagined it was about to find itself accused of "promoting terrorism", but it wasn't long before it got a sharp lesson in the soup of bigotry and stupidity that swills below the surface of the internet.
Now the company finds itself at the centre of an even bigger storm for pulling the ad, accused of cowering in the face of an out-of-control conservative blogosphere.
The apparently inoffensive magazine ad shows Rachael Ray, purveyor of quick and easy recipes to millions of Food Channel viewers, in a black and white paisley scarf, clutching her iced latte in front of a row of cherry trees.
The offending item, though, is the scarf, which reminded one blogger of the keffiyeh head-dress worn by Arab men, an item which a second blogger – picking up the theme and running several miles with it – dubbed "jihadi chic". The Little Green Footballs blog, a conservative favourite, accused Dunkin' Donuts of "casually promoting the symbol of Palestinian terrorism and the intifada".
Faced with thousands of comments on dozens of internet sites – many accusing the writers of ignorance and intolerance but almost as many condemning Dunkin' Donuts and some even promoting a boycott of the company – the Massachusetts-based chain took the decision last week to pull the ad from its website.
With the kerfuffle continuing still, the company has been apologising ever since. "In a recent online ad, Rachael Ray is wearing a black-and-white silk scarf with a paisley design," it says. "It was selected by a stylist for the advertising shoot. Absolutely no symbolism was intended."
But the company is having to placate not just those who were pressing for a boycott, but also the thousands of internet users who have expressed their anger at the company for pulling the ad. One of the most discussed posts on the video-sharing site YouTube says the company has been "castrated".
"The possibility of misperception detracted from its original intention to promote our iced coffee," Dunkin' Donuts pleaded yesterday.