Tibetans incensed over beer ad with Dalai Lama

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 29, 2012 - 9:39 PM

It may have seemed like a good idea at one point, but a billboard ad featuring a yellow-haired, smiling Dalai Lama next to a beer bottle and the words "Doing Good. Now Available In Blonde" did no good for Minnesota's large Tibetan population this week.

Outrage from many Tibetans here prompted the local beer company with a do-gooder reputation to pull the ad and issue an apology.

"We recently displayed poor judgment in running an advertisement that included an image of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama," read the letter from Jacquie Berglund, CEO of the Minneapolis-based Finnegans beer company. "We apologize for this and want to reassure all who were offended that we have pulled the advertisement and it will not run again." She sent the letter on Wednesday to the president of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota (TAFM) and to the Dalai Lama's office in New York.

Berglund said she also plans to meet with local Tibetan leaders on Saturday to apologize in person.

The controversial ad was timed to coincide with the launch of a new beer -- Finnegans Blonde Ale, slated to roll out Thursday.

The Finnegans brand is unusual because 100 percent of the profits from sales in bars and liquor stores throughout the state support local food shelves.

The Dalai Lama ad, which occupied a prominent spot on a 40-by-20-foot digital billboard screen atop one corner of the Block E complex in downtown Minneapolis, was part of the campaign introducing the new beer.

"The intent was to focus on a peacemaker," Berglund said. "He is an icon on that."

Berglund said the ad went up Tuesday before noon. It was down by 6 p.m.

Complaints started among Minnesota's Tibetan community, the second-largest in the country, but soon spread via Facebook to other cities.

"It appalled a lot of people," said Jigme Ugen, a local Tibetan activist who said he was offended by the image of his spiritual leader used to promote alcohol. He compared it to using Gandhi's picture to sell guns or the pope's image to promote condoms.

Equally disturbing, he said, was the fact that the ad used what appeared to be an altered photo of the Dalai Lama, replacing his shaven head, as is customary for monks, with blond hair.

Ugen, who says he used to work in advertising and can appreciate an edgy ad campaign, said this one crossed a line, calling it a "cheap publicity stunt."

Namgyal Dorjee, president of the TAFM, seconded that: "It is very offensive. That is unacceptable to us because His Holiness is a Buddhist monk."

The Dalai Lama is a revered figure among Tibetans worldwide, and he is widely regarded as their spiritual leader.

On Wednesday, the billboard displayed a different Finnegans Blonde Ale ad. This one featured a silhouette of a different icon: St. Ashlee, the Patron Saint of Blondes, Berglund said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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