THE Simpsons have long poked harmless fun at American stereotypes without causing apparent offence.
But Rio de Janeiro’s tourist board found it hard to chuckle at a recent episode in which the city was depicted as a dangerous place where tourists are attacked by gangs of street kids, pounced on by monkeys and abducted by taxi drivers.
Riotour, the city’s tourist board, has said it will sue the programme’s producers, Fox Cable International, for what it called "incorrect stereotype" imagery used in the episode aired to 11 million US viewers at the weekend. It said it will be suing for damage to its international image and potential loss from tourist revenue.
Jos Eduardo Guinle, director of Riotour, said that the board would file the suit in the US courts and was also deciding on whether to demand compensation for a recent campaign to promote Rio abroad, which had cost the board $18 million. "This episode depicted Rio as a den of violence and sexual deviance," Mr Guinle said. "It was full of inaccurate stereotypes which will almost certainly stop people from coming to Rio."
The episode, titled Blame It On Lisa - in an allusion to the 1994 Stanley Donen film starring Roger Moore, Blame It On Rio - tells of the hair-raising experiences faced by the Simpson family on a trip to Rio. They embark on the journey in search of a poor orphan, Ronaldo, whom Lisa - Homer’s charitable daughter - decided to sponsor.
As soon as they arrive Homer is abducted by a taxi driver and is only returned after a ransom is paid for him. As Homer and Bart sit at a corner bar drinking fruit juice, they are robbed by a gang of street children. When the Simpsons finally reach the orphanage in one of the city’s hillside shanties, they are attacked by monkeys.
As they walk through the slum they trip over rats. On his visit to the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain, Bart is swallowed by a boa constrictor. While in his Copacabana beach hotel room Bart is pictured watching a TV programme showing a naked stripper performing to an audience full of children. There are also suggestions that Rio is a city full of bisexual men.
But Riotour is also irritated by a number of factual inaccuracies in the cartoon which they say shows that the producers do not know the difference between Portuguese-speaking Brazil and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
And the Simpsons are told that a good mode of transport around the city is to follow a line of conga dancers - the conga is a Caribbean dance.
On an outing to a local community hall famous for samba dancing, the Simpsons turn up to learn how to dance the macarea - a Spanish dance not known in Brazil.
The government in the capital Brasilia has vowed to back the Rio authorities in their legal action against Fox. "This created a distorted, damaging vision of Brazil," said the president, Fernando, Henrique Cardoso.
Rio de Janeiro is plagued by rising poverty. Its violent crime rate is notoriously high.
While kidnappings for ransom and armed robberies are common, the city’s tourist authorities say that crimes against tourists are rare. Such violence is usually restricted to areas near the favelas (shanties) or to the poorer outskirts, where tourists rarely go.
However, the tourism authorities are mainly worried about losing foreign visitors at a time when the city’s economy is increasingly dependent on the tourist trade.