Garieri Jewelers' billboard in Sturbridge, Mass. Credit: Clear Channel, via Scott Garieri | Washington Post

A historic New England highway is host to a controversial ad: a billboard depicting a young man kneeling near midfield.

The twist is that he’s not protesting, but proposing.

The Garieri Jewelers advertisement reads, “If you’re going to take a knee this season, please have a ring in your hand!”

It is a reference to President Donald Trump’s attack on the NFL and its players who knelt during the anthem in protest, and something Massachusetts-based jeweler Scott Garieri called a witty “play on words.”

“The way that the football season was, everyone had a thing about taking the knee,” he said. And so, Scott Garieri and Alexandria, his daughter and store manager, came up with what he called a “catchy” advertisement.

Initial reactions to the billboard, he said, were overwhelmingly positive. But the mood quickly changed after one disgruntled driver pulled over on the Charlton, Massachusetts, road, snapped a photo and posted it to Facebook, accusing the ad of “being racist.”

The Garieris attempted to diffuse the firestorm of furious comments that followed.

“We want to sell engagement rings. We’re selling love, not hate,” Alexandria said. “We were never wanting to be offensive, it was always meant to be satirical.”

Online users quickly began rating the store with one star. Comments came through social media platforms threatening to vomit on the jewelry showcases and urinate on the adjacent sidewalk. Then, Garieri said, someone wrote: “Alexandria why don’t you just kill yourself?”

“That’s when it started to get out of hand,” he said.

Racial justice and police brutality, the issues that inspired NFL players to kneel, were not on the mind of Garieri – A New England Patriots fan who calls Tom Brady “the greatest of all time” and Bill Belichick “the best coach in the world” – during the billboard design stage.

Still, as Trump criticizes Nike for a recent ad featuring former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to kneel in protest, the turn of phrase struck a nerve.

The family-owned business has been in operation since 1947. Garieri, a second-generation jeweler, took over after his father’s passing in 1978.

“We’re a country store, we just try to do advertising in a way that’s affordable and brings in traffic,” he said, adding that he aims to create humor-filled billboards, which are placed on a strip with half a dozen others. He’s done the same in the past.

When Alexandria got married, Garieri Jewelers put up an ad that read, “Happy wife, happy life.” The backdrop was a photo of the couple-to-be. A year ago, another provocative billboard pictured a diamond engagement ring beside the words: “Make her speechless or change.”

Last year’s ad led to criticism and accusations that Garieri was sexist.

“Ironically, my daughter was the one who came up with that one,” he said, chuckling.