On Sunday Groupon aired special Super Bowl a commercial highlighting political strife in Tibet. “The Tibetan people are in trouble,” says actor Timothy Hutton in the 30-second spot,”their culture is in jeopardy,” he adds as beautiful Tibetan landscapes pan across with serene music playing in the background. But suddenly the whole thing turns in to a Groupon ad for Tibetan food in Chicago.
Groupon.com is an online site that offers its 44 million subscribers local daily deals. Forbes Magazine called them “the next web phenom.” According to Forbes, the company is on pace to make $1 billion in sales faster than any other business, ever. Even Oprah chose them as one of her favorite things this year.
Groupon’s 30-year-old CEO Andrew Mason says the spot was simply trying to raise awareness:
We take the causes we highlighted extremely seriously - that’s why we created this campaign in partnership with many hallmark community organizations, for whom we’re raising money at SaveTheMoney.org.
…When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify antisocial behavior - like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women. Unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously. Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it’s cool to kill whales. In fact - and this is part of the reason we ran them - they have the opposite effect.
In an earlier blog post, Mason explained the commercial was intended as “a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial.”
But not everyone is buying it.
“Hooray for exploiting human tragedy in the name of saving a few bucks” wrote Angryasianman.com. “The people in Tibet are in trouble… but hey, who the hell cares — Groupon is giving you a great deal on some f#$king good-ass grub!” he added.
For those who missed the actual spot, it will forever stand as an icon of advertising — one whose creators, no doubt, thought would be breakthrough in terms of ‘buzz’ and ‘disruption,’ but which ultimately is nothing more than culturally-myopic, tactless, and offensive. The decision to air this spot was also breathtakingly naïve of Groupon’s management and, even more so, of their agency. Together, they managed to accomplish surround-sound insult: belittling the cause and struggle of the Tibetan people while, at the same time, lobbing an implied, but unmistakable criticism at China for what is arguably that country’s most sensitive regional, ethnic and human rights issue.
The ad was conceived by a noted agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, who’s famous for the “PC Hunter” campaign for Microsoft. Other clients include Old Navy, American Express and Best Buy.
As of the time this story was published, only 441 $15 donations have been made to the Tibet Fund that the Groupon CEO said they’re raising money for; in order for this deal to become a Groupon deal, they need 1,000 donations. If they were really trying to raise awareness why didn’t slap some text at the end of the commercial directing people to the site so they could donate?