Pictured above is the recent billboard that caused some serious buzz. It’s an ad by a company called SnoreStop, which makes an anti-snoring mouth spray, and it first appeared on a billboard in Los Angeles. It was such a successful campaign for the company (I mean, who heard of them before this controversy?) that they tried to bring the ad to the premier advertising spot of NYC—or perhaps the world—Times Square. Officials in charge recently decided it would be too controversial, and rejected it from being shown there.
The ad comes at a time when Muslims are front and center in the public eye. Every minority in this country’s history went through this scrutiny under which others examined and questioned their loyalties and identities before the group becomes a part of the fabric of American society. The Muslims undergo this painful process now.
I had mixed feelings when the billboard was brought to my attention. The niqab worn by some Muslim women, regardless of the fiqh ruling behind it, has become a uniquely Muslim symbol in recent years. France banned it, and the U.K. considers doing the same. Women wearing the niqab are ubiquitous in many European cities. Images and symbols have meaning. The advertising industry in particular is aware of this, using symbols and banking on the fact their audience will make certain associations and draw certain conclusions. And so, this treatment of the Muslim symbol reflects in some measure how Muslims and Islam as a whole are considered in the United States today.
The ad features a soldier and a niqabi standing as a couple. Our fictional sister is wearing a wedding ring, so we can assume this couple is husband and wife. On the surface, this seems like progress. Muslims are included in advertising, as normal Americans with normal issues. The ad seems to be saying, “Muslims are human and they have snoring issues with their spouses, too!” It’s nice to be portrayed as having mundane problems, as opposed to the usual problems faced by extremists posing an existential threat to the American way of life. Needless to say, a significant segment of the population opposed the ad on these grounds. The rightwing Islamophobia industry brainwashed them thoroughly, and they see any normalization of Muslims as propaganda meant to weaken America, and they won’t stand for this propaganda to spread. Ironic in the extreme. The company responded by defending the values of diversity its ad purportedly promotes.
But the ad deserves legitimate criticism. What do the symbols here actually represent? We discussed the niqabi, but the other individual on the ad is just as striking. It is a soldier, standing tall and brave. A symbol we’ve seen often in recent years, celebrated and promoted in order to maintain public support for misguided wars. The respect and reverence of the military in modern American society borders on a national religion. Some of the propaganda over the past decade made the wars our military engaged in look like missions of liberation; our soldiers “went over there” to free innocent Muslim women from the oppression of savage Muslim men. The ad subtly evokes this image.
Even more troubling is how the couple in the ad is meant to be a clear juxtaposition, a bringing together of two opposites. The ad campaign’s motto is, “If we can keep this couple together, we can keep anyone together.” These two pictured are expected to be viewed as opposites, people you’d never think could get along, let alone be married. But even this couple can maintain their marriage, thanks to SnoreStop’s miraculous product! If the soldier is the quintessential American, then what is this ad saying about the Americanness of his opposite, the apparently-quintessentially Muslim woman?
Clearly, we have a great deal of work to do in making Islam familiar to the people around us in the months and years ahead. It’ll take a lot more than snoring medication to bring the American people as a whole and Muslims together in a comfortable relationship.