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Gap turns anti-Sikh graffiti on subway ad into PR victory

Pedestrians walk outside the Gap flagship store in San Francisco, August 19, 2010.


A New York city subway ad for Gap Inc. featuring a Sikh model got worldwide exposure this week after someone defaced it with racist messages and the retailer quickly responded, turning it into a public-relations victory.

On Sunday, Arsalan Iftikhar, an editor at The Islamic Monthly, tweeted a photo of the ad, which features U.S. actor and fashion designer Waris Ahluwalia. Mr. Ahluwalia, who wears a turban and full beard as many Sikhs do, is shown in the ad being embraced by a female model, along with the message "Make Love" and the Gap logo. The photo Mr. Iftikhar tweeted – taken by photographer Robert Gerhardt -- showed that someone had scratched out "Love" and written in "Bombs." Another handwritten message underneath it said: "Please stop driving taxis!"

The next day, Gap's official Twitter account responded to his message thanking him for drawing their attention to the vandalized ad and asking him to let them know its location. As a gesture of support, the company also changed the background image on its Twitter account to the photo from the ad.

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Mr. Iftikhar's message with the photo of the vandalized poster was retweeted hundreds of times. Gap's reaction attracted praise on Twitter and Facebook from people congratulating the brand for a "smart response" and "for standing up for what is right".

Mr. Iftikhar wrote an account of the exchange on The Daily Beast, praising Gap for its "rocket-fast" response.

"Companies like Gap are doing a great job forging a path for minority and under-represented fashion models … who do not conveniently fit into our traditional American notions of beauty and actually challenge how we have superficially defined those terms since our country's existence."

It is a lesson for marketers in social media communications – where being quick and offering up a genuine, human response can pay dividends.

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