Dieter Zetsche, head of the Mercedes-Benz unit of Daimler AG, revealed the controversial ad during a presentation Tuesday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET: Daimler AG apologized Thursday for using an image of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a promotional presentation for Mercedes-Benz cars.
The image briefly appeared Tuesday during a presentation by Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler's Mercedes unit, at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It reproduced a famous Alberto Korda photo of Guevara, the Argentine communist who spearheaded the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in Cuba. The photo became a symbol of communist revolutionary movements during the 1960s and '70s.
But in place of the star that adorns Guevara's beret in the original, Mercedes affixed its corporate logo.
Activists reacted with horror to the appropriation of Guevara, whom many political conservatives and Cuban-Americans consider a mass murderer who helped subjugate Cuba.
"Mercedes-Benz Uses Communist Madman Che Guevara to Sell Luxury Cars," said the headline on a blog post from the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative political organization in Washington.
"Che Guevara, not to put too fine a point on it, was a psychopath whose sadistic lust for blood was not easily quenched. He killed for pleasure," said the post, written by Heritage Vice President Mike Gonzalez.
In a statement Thursday to msnbc.com, Daimler said the image was just "one of many images and videos in the presentation," which it said was intended to represent "the revolution in automobility enabled by new technologies, in particular those associated with connectivity."
"Daimler was not condoning the life or actions of this historical figure or the political philosophy he espoused," the company said, adding: "We sincerely apologize to those who took offense."
Daimler's statement was welcomed by Ernesto Suarez, who organized an online petition calling for Mercedes-Benz to apologize for using the image of a man the petition called "a racist, homophobic, anti-semitic and tyrannical killer who admitted in his own writing to his endless blood thirst."
"I'm very satisfied with the reaction from Mercedes-Benz," Suarez, a Cuban-American who lives in Kansas City, Mo., told msnbc.com Thursday evening. "I believe that they have done the right thing.
"The victory, if there is one, is not mine, but belongs to the descendants of [Guevara's] victims [and] the survivors, to common sense and to civility," he said.
Here's Daimler's full statement to msnbc.com:
In his keynote speech at CES, Dr. Zetsche addressed the revolution in automobility enabled by new technologies, in particular those associated with connectivity. To illustrate this point, the company briefly used a photo of revolutionary Che Guevara (it was one of many images and videos in the presentation). Daimler was not condoning the life or actions of this historical figure or the political philosophy he espoused. We sincerely apologize to those who took offense.