February 9th, 2011
06:53 AM GMT
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A U.S. online coupon company has managed, in the words of one blogger, a “2-for-1 Super Bowl Special: Offend Both China and Tibetans Activists.”

Groupon, the group buying website that has become the newest darling of the dotcom world – rebuffing a recent bid by Google to buy it for $5 billion – aired three ads during Sunday’s Super Bowl game that attempted a playful juxtaposition of serious issues with getting discounts: Hence the ad campaign’s tongue-in-cheek title, “Save the Money.”

As CNN.com’s Doug Gross explains, in an ad that opens on a Himalayan landscape, actor Timothy Hutton bemoans the human-rights situation in Tibet before quipping from the Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago, "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!" and extols how he and 200 others got a $30 meal for half price.

In the two other ads, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. bemoans the world's dwindling number of whales before talking up a discounted whale-watching cruise and actress Elizabeth Hurley bemoans imperiled Amazon rainforests before promoting a deal on a Brazilian wax beauty treatment (adding that "not all deforestation is bad").

The ads were directed by Christopher Guest, the actor from pseudo-documentary classic “This is Spinal Tap” and director of similar satirical documentaries like “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” which poked fun at competitive dog shows and 1960s folk music culture, respectively.

But the parody has fallen flat on both sides of the Pacific, with Tibetan activists outraged, claiming the ad was insensitive. Bloggers in China – where Groupon is in the midst of a big push into the world’s largest internet market – remarked on the timing of the ad.

"Just saw the ad, are they oblivious?" asked user Mofei on Sina.com's microblogging service Weibo. Sina.com user cnbuff410 asked, "Groupon ... you play a 'free Tibet' advertisement during the Super Bowl ... do you actually want to enter the Chinese market?"

Now the internet is buzzing over the company’s non-apology apology posted on the firm’s blog.

"We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes - even if we didn't take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?" CEO Andrew Mason wrote on Groupon's official blog.

But that seems to have done little to bury the furor. In an article headlined “Disaster in Slow-Mo,” tech writer Violet Blue noted in Zdnet: “Groupon’s wholly unapologetic responses are not making anything better … (it comes) nowhere near addressing public unhappiness with the brand. Instead, their current focus is on talking about the philanthropic, web-only aspect of the “Save the Money” campaign, ignoring all else.”

The ad comes on the heels of a similar controversy last week when clothing designer and U.S. entrepreneur Kenneth Cole tweeted: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online…” Cole quickly apologized for the remark.

But all this raises questions whether the snarky online culture of the internet is bleeding into the commercial realm, and breeding controversy for the sake of sales.

A post by Bhuchung K. Tsering on the International Campaign for Tibet web site notes: “For the record, Tibetans are not known for fish curries and the Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago is actually run by Nepalese and Indians, and thus not Tibetan.”

Maybe Groupon should have just stuck to the facts.


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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Qawwal

    This is quite typical of the trend adopted by the Americans to utilise and mould all that is Eastern, exotic, or ethnic, while incorporating these facets into their lives in the manner they see fit. Alas, as with everything else done in haste for the sake of conforming, and for the sake of embracing all that is 'cool' and 'different' which seems to be the phase the majority of Americans have been engrossed with the past decade or so, the styles, the nuances of food, the philosophies, the clothes, accessories, religions, spiritual components are presented crassly, and minus proper comprehension of the intricate cultures and the myriads of ethnicities in the East,

    February 9, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  2. Sally

    WOWwwWW!The commercial was amazing and so is groupon. I have just now checked http://groupon.com and http://grouponbot.com have anyone tried froupon deals they really rock may they really save a lot of money! :)

    February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  3. Jeff

    And sometimes a commercial...is just a commercial

    February 9, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  4. Bobo

    In response to Qawwal, the ignorance stereotype you think the commercial is living up to is in fact exactly what it's mocking. The ads are meant to be a jab at the bubble of comfort American's live in - Groupon also has a donation website up, that people can use to donate to all the causes they had a laugh at: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/

    February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  5. Loraine Antrim

    When we communicate publicly today, it becomes a global message in minutes. Advertisers who don't understand that their messages impact an international audience are sorely short-sighted. Messages and communicat­ion are the heart of all good advertisin­g. And those messages can be humorous, offensive, somber, banal. They can make us think, or smile, or cry. But Groupon's TIbetian ad makes decent people cringe. The message they have sent to the world is " we think it's ok to use an oppressed Nation and people to make a dollar." That's not just short-sighted, it's sad. Loraine Antrim

    February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Brody12

    The commercials were GROSS and INSENSITIVE! All 3 were stupid and rude. Groupon lost millions of peoples respect and most of all, Groupon showed itself as arrogant and cruel. They insulted the consumers of America and they insulted the Tibetan people!
    Groupon is a bully and a brute!They harm small businesses and buyers!They lie, cheat, and steal. They are sued all the time because of their bad business practices! Then they have to settles out of court!
    Mason should quit as CEO and be replaced! The Feds should investigate their business practices!
    Groupon is a greedy monster!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  7. John

    Actually the bid for Groupon by Google was 6 billion not 5.

    I read that some people were upset enough at Groupon for this commercial that they were switching to other companies that do the same thing as Groupon as far as promoting local deals http://daytontribune.com/will-groupon-customers-and-business-switch-to-competitors-such-as-customer-advantage/75994/

    I think people are just too sensitive these days. The entire thing was for a good cause and I'm sure Groupon will raise a ton of money for the people they made light of in the commercial.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm |

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