By Suyin Haynes
July 4, 2019

An Italian airline has “deeply apologized” after one of its promotional videos featured an actor wearing blackface in an apparent attempt to portray former U.S. president Barack Obama.

Alitalia, Italy’s flag carrier airline, quickly faced backlash on social media for the video, which was promoting the airline’s new nonstop flight route from Rome to Washington. The video, which has since been removed from the company’s social media channels, depicted ‘Obama’ finding his way to Washington; three other videos in the series included actors playing President Trump, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln making similar trips.

“The ad is ‘unwatchable.’ It paints a perfect picture of a sovereignist little Italy that is proud of its ignorance and still remembers Obama as the “handsome and tanned” president, as Berlusconi once described him,” said Leonardo de Franceschi, a researcher at the University of Rome who confronted the airline over the advert on Facebook.

According to the New York Times, an airline representative initially responded by defending the video, saying that the actor playing Obama’s character was not Caucasian and that “makeup was applied to highlight features.” (Though a photo from the actor’s Instagram page that appears to show him at the beginning of the ‘makeover’ suggests his skin was darkened for the video.)

Alitalia also told another commenter they were “exaggerating” with their criticism, per Al Jazeera, but later walked back the comments and pulled the video from its social channels. “For our Company, respect for everyone is mandatory,” the airline said in a statement posted on social media July 3. “It was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened.”

Write to Suyin Haynes at suyin.haynes@time.com.

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