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Chinese bloggers push Coke boycott

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BEIJING — First criticized by activists angry that the Coca-Cola Co. is sponsoring the Olympic torch relay, Coke executives now face another problem: Chinese nationalists calling for a boycott of the brand.

Last week, a Chinese blogger posted a photograph of a Coke advertisement taken in a German railway station. The ad showed three Buddhist monks riding a roller coaster and carried the slogan "Make it real."

On the popular Chinese Tianya Internet forum, the blogger, who used the screen name "Super Laboratory," argued that the monks were Tibetan lamas, the roller coaster represented freedom and the slogan meant they should "realize (freedom) now."

"Coke! Okay. I'll remember this and won't drink your crappy product," the blogger wrote.

By Monday, photographs of the advertisement had been posted on other Chinese Web sites, including Sina.com, one of China's most influential portals for news and discussion.

Hundreds of people had written posts. Some dismissed allegations that the Coke ad supported Tibetan independence. But most chastised the company or called for a boycott.

A posting by someone using the screen name "Knife" wrote that while "using sensitive issues in ads can attract attention? If it has anything to do with Tibetan independence, I won't try the product."

Coke responded by pulling the ad, which it said was used only in parts of Germany and was five years old.

The ad "was designed to encourage people to try something new, and this image was only one of several that made up the 'Make It Real' campaign," the company said in a statement.

"We regret if the use of an image featuring monks from an old print advertising campaign from 2003 has caused any offense," it said.

Chinese nationalism — stoked by an education system that stresses colonial incursions in Chinese history and by recent propaganda claiming that exiled Tibetans want to stoke unrest in Tibet — has sparked popular anger at other foreign companies. In 2004, Nike withdrew a television advertisement showing NBA star LeBron James defeating a dragon, a traditional symbol of the Chinese state, after it sparked popular anger and a reprimand by the Beijing government. In 2003, Toyota was forced to pull a print ad showing two stone lions, emblems of Chinese culture, saluting a Prado SUV after Chinese posted hundreds of angry notes on Internet bulletin boards.

A Coke spokesman said on Monday that the company had received "a very limited number of consumer calls regarding this issue."

In its statement, Coke argued the angry bloggers had read too much into the poster. To "take a five-year-old local campaign and try to draw some sinister connection to current events shows a lack of concern for the truth that should be alarming to all members of society," it said.