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Starbucks Enrages U.S. Armenian Community With PR Misfire

Social media users claim to have seen the poster depicting women dressed in traditional Armenian garb under the crescent and star of the Turkish flag in several Starbucks locations in Los Angeles County, which is home to a large number of people with full or partial Armenian ancestry. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- An attempt by U.S. coffee giant Starbucks to appeal to Los Angeles' sizable Armenian population has backfired after its coffee shops displayed posters depicting women dressed in traditional Armenian garb under the crescent and star of the Turkish flag.

The posters were spotted this week in Los Angeles-area Starbucks locations, infuriating activists and social media users who called the image offensive in light of what Armenians refer to as the "genocide" of their people by Turkish Ottoman forces in the early 20th century.

"Why is Starbucks selling coffee using an image of women, dressed in traditional Armenian costumes, celebrating a Turkish state that systematically victimized Armenian women during the Armenian Genocide, and that still denies this crime against all humanity?" the Armenian National Committee Of America (ANCA) wrote in a February 18 post on its Facebook page.

Scholars estimate that some 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces in what is now eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1918. Ankara has rejected the term "genocide" in connection with the killings, saying both Turks and Armenians committed atrocities during and after World War I.

Social media users claimed to have seen the poster in several Starbucks locations in Los Angeles County, which is home to 446,000 people with full or partial Armenian ancestry, according to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau data cited by California-based scholar Shushan Karapetian.

As outrage swelled online and Starbucks customer service representatives fielded angry calls, the company posted an apology on the ANCA's Facebook page on February 18, promising to remove the offending photographs.

"Serving as a place for the community to connect is core to our business and we strive to be locally relevant in all of our stores," a Starbucks representative wrote in the post. "We missed the mark here and we apologize for upsetting our customers and the community."

The representative added that the artwork would be removed from a store in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Woodland Hills and that Starbucks is "working to make this right."

It was not immediately clear exactly how many shops displayed the photograph.

A Starbucks spokesperson told RFE/RL in a February 19 email that the company is "quickly looking into this to ensure this image is not in any other Starbucks locations."

'Flood Of Concern'

ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian said the group became aware of the posters from social media users in California early in the morning on February 18 and that his group believes they were displayed in at least "two or three locations in Southern California."

"It became very clear very quickly that this was a very serious issue for the entire community, because we started getting a flood of concern," Hamparian told RFE/RL, adding that Starbucks responded "very appropriately."

The photograph, in which one of the women dressed in Armenian garb is holding a paper Starbucks cup while red balloons embossed with the Turkish star and crescent float overhead, appears to have originated with California-based designer Tim Rose.

Rose, who has worked on campaigns for Starbucks and other multinationals, including Coca-Cola and Nike, featured the photograph on his website as recently as January 28, according to a cached version of the site.

The image has since been removed from the website.

Rose did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But he posted a statement on his website apologizing for the photograph, which he said was taken for Starbucks during a 2011 festival celebrating Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

"Neither I nor the photographer knew the dancers were Armenian," Rose wrote.

He added that he removed the image from his website "once it came to my attention that this was rightfully offensive to the Armenian community."

"I am in full support of their plight and would never have knowingly supported any action that would hurt either them or cause unnecessary pain," Rose said.

Preparations are underway worldwide for this year's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the mass killing of Armenians under Ottoman rule. The tragedy has been recognized as "genocide" by more than 20 countries, including Canada, Russia, and France.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on February 16 recalled from parliament protocols on normalizing ties and establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey, accusing Ankara of lacking "political will" and thwarting the process with "preconditions."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service

NOTE: This article has been amended since publication to include a statement from Tim Rose.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.