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Coca-Cola apologizes for ‘insensitive’ ad featuring indigenous Mexicans

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Coca-Cola Mexico has backtracked over an ad featuring an indigenous Mexican community. (Reuters)

Coca-Cola has apologized for a "insensitive” Christmas video depicting a group of mostly young, white people traveling to a remote Mexican town to hand out bottles of Coke to indigenous locals.

The ad, part of Coke’s “Open Your Heart” campaign, has been criticized for white hipster-like people building a Coca-Cola tree for the underprivileged villagers and delivering them coolers filled with soda. 

The ad begins with a fact claiming that 81.6 percent of Mexico's indigenous people feel rejected for speaking a language other than Spanish, while showing faces of what appear to be villagers in the indigenous town of Totontepec.  They do not source of the fact.

The scene transitions to a group of long-haired blond women and bespectacled young men joyously sawing wood, welding and painting before they playfully head off in an El Camino pickup to the eastern mountains of Oaxaca where Totontepec is located. The copy continues, "This Christmas a group of young people decided to give something very special to the indigenous community of Totontepec (Villa) de Morelos in Oaxaca.”

The visitors proceed to build a red tree with Coca-Cola lights to the smiles, hugs and appreciation of the locals, who belong to the Mixe community. Across the lighted tree are the words "We will stay united" in the Mixe language. The tourists then hand bottles of Coca Cola to the locals while everyone smiles.  Coke tells viewers to #AbreTuCorazon – open your heart, in Spanish.

The spot first appeared across various platforms, including Coca Cola Mexico’s YouTube channel and immediately drew ire from health advocacy and anti-discrimination groups across the country.

The Alliance for Food Health, a coalition of consumer rights and health groups, wants the Mexican government to block the ad, saying it is an attack on the dignity of indigenous people. It also says the ad contributes to the deteriorating health of Mexico's indigenous communities. Mexico is a major consumer of soda and other sugared drinks and has skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes. The average Mexican consumes 43 gallons of soda per year, with Coca-Cola controlling a vast majority of the market share

The alliance said it would formally ask the National Council to Prevent Discrimination to block the ad campaign immediately.

"It's outrageous for the indigenous," said Diana Turner, a public relations person for Consumer Power, one of the groups in the alliance.

Calls by The Associated Press to Coca-Cola Mexico all went to voicemail. In the commercial, the company says the campaign is meant to "break down prejudice and share."

The commercial and its #AbreTuCorazon hashtag have drawn a slew of critical comments across social media:

Initially, Coca-Cola appeared to defend the commercial over social media, responding: "We appreciated you sharing your concerns. We will be sure to pass along your comments."

But Wednesday night, a spokesperson reached by Eater apologized for the “insensitive” nature of the ad and said the video has now been removed from Coca-Cola Mexico's YouTube channel:

"As part of Coca-Cola México's Christmas campaign for this year the video "Mixe Community Totontepec" was launched on digital channels, seeking to convey a message of unity and joy. Our intention was never to be insensitive to or underestimate any indigenous group. We have now removed the video and apologize to anyone who may have been offended. In nearly 90 years in the country, Coca-Cola Mexico has worked to share messages of unity and friendship to contribute to build a society free of prejudices."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.