They put a smile in every chocolate bar, according to the famous advertising slogan. But it may take more than a toothy grin for the all-American "candy" firm Hershey's to shrug off its latest PR crisis.
Demonstrators picketed company properties in several major cities over the Easter weekend to protest a decision that saw a boarding school tied to Hershey's refuse to admit a teenager because he was HIV positive.
Aids-awareness campaigners everywhere from New York and San Francisco to, oddly, Delhi, called on consumers to boycott the company's confectionery amid an ongoing legal dispute between the unnamed 14-year-old and the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania.
The prestigious academic institution is run by the Milton Hershey School Trust, a charity which owns a controlling stake in the chocolate multinational. Late last year, it decided to turn away the boy because of his medical condition. Campaigners say the child, who controls his condition with medication, poses no threat to fellow students at the school, which was established by the Hershey's founder in 1909 and educates roughly 1,850 students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.
They have therefore filed a lawsuit over the decision to withdraw his place there, saying that it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. "For a 14-year-old to hear that he's a danger, he's a threat, that's been really hard for him," said Ronda Goldfien, an attorney for the AIDS law project.
This weekend's protests were organised to coincide with Easter, one of the most lucrative events in the chocolate industry's global calendar. Organisers said that the Hershey school's treatment of its potential pupil reflects ignorance and prejudice on a scale that has not been widely seen for decades. "We are asking the public to send a clear message to Hershey that there are No Kisses for Hershey as Hershey continues its path of discrimination and ignorance," read a statement from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Hershey's has yet to comment on the affair, but the Milton Hershey School Trust said it had banned the boy from attending because of the risk that he might end up having sexual intercourse with a fellow pupil.
"We systematically encourage abstinence, and we educate our children on sexual health issues," it said in a statement. But "our teenagers are the same as teens all across the country. Despite our best efforts, some of our students will engage in sexual activity with one another. Given our residential setting, when they do, they will be doing so on our watch."