I feel like people are probably expecting a comment on Groupon’s amazingly over the top, tasteless, offensive advertisement shown during the Super Bowl last night. (Why do I feel like people expect this? Well, I’m Buddhist and I am known for being cranky. It’s not really a large leap there…)
So, yes, I found that Groupon advertisement to be a masterclass in what not to do. For those who missed the advert, here it is:
The copy reads
Mountainous Tibet – one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on Groupon.com weâ€™re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.
Let’s get the basics out of the way, first. Tibet is in the Himalayas, yes – and because of this, Tibetan cuisine, along with most Himalayan cuisine, doesn’t involve fish. Neither does it involve curry (although Tibetans living in exile in India have added it to their diet).
Facts aside, there are still massive issues here. Putting aside the big one for a minute, the slightly smaller one is the incredibly tone-deaf advertisement creating a situation that suggests all is okay because the displaced, threatened culture can still cook for the White Man. I am not a race scholar by any means, but you don’t need to be one to see the ugly legacy of colonialism echoing in the advertisement.
And then, of course, there is the big issue. The Big Issue. The fact that Groupon is using the genocide of a people to sell it’s services. The occupation of Tibet is considered by many to be one of the grossest examples of human rights violations in the last fifty years. We know that China has imprisoned, beaten, raped, tortured, and killed men and women, monks and nuns, who refuse to renounce their Buddhist beliefs or their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. We know that China has “disappeared” the entire family of the Panchen Lama – at least, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama and other ranking Buddhist monks. China has made it clear that when the current Dalai Lama dies, they will try to instill a puppetmaster in his place – and that they intend to destroy the religion. They have already destroyed countless monasteries, artifacts, and aspects of culture and way of life.
So naturally, Groupon thinks this is a great thing to use to sell it’s services. Because making fun of Darfur would have been dated, and Egypt happened too quickly for them to jump on that train, I suppose. And Groupon did think it was a great thing; from their Twitter feed:
Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers’ hearts are warmed by #Groupon’s Super Bowl ad. #brandbowl http://bit.ly/e7X48C
It was only well after the Tibet advertisement aired that Groupon realized it badly miscalculated; almost an hour after airing, the topic was still trending on Twitter, and the feedback was not positive. Then Groupon posted an additional tweet, which has not yet been supplanted by anything else:
Support Tibet’s largest charity here: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/
Now, in it’s supposed-defense, prior to airing of any of the advertisements yesterday, Groupon’s Andrew Mason (founder) posted this at it’s site:
The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?
The actual “Save the Money” link says:
Money is one of our most important natural resources. Sadly, thousands of dollars are wasted every year. Until now.
Finally, celebrities are lining up to spread the word about this important fight. Watch the informative videos below to find out how you can help save the money.
If you save so much money that you feel like saving something else, donate to the four mission-driven organizations below. Groupon is matching donations to make sure they can save the money too.
There are two issues here. The first is practical: the only people who know about “Save the Money” are the people who are already reading Groupon’s blogs and participating in it’s forum(s). The advertisements themselves don’t include any information. And in fact, had Groupon even decided to air a black title card with information on “Save the Money” with a link to the Tibet Fund, then we might not be having any of this conversation. But instead, the company courted disaster by creating a small group of “in-the-know” people who the advertisement wasn’t created for. The people with no, or only passing, familiarity, with Groupon had no context for the charity aspect of these commercials.
The second is a bit more academic. Andrew Mason has said that this was supposed to be a poke at Groupon’s origins, a fun parody and a satiric take on the celebrity PSA. The issue is in how satire – and even parody – work. Both work when a situation is turned on it’s head, allowing the viewer to see the foolish nature of the person, or position, being targeted (whether it is their own views or, say, Glenn Beck’s). This is why The Daily Show excels at just what they do – they’ve mastered the art of changing perception, and highlighting just how foolish their target (often Fox and personalities) are being.
The problem with Groupon’s target here is that few people think that outrage over the situation in Tibet is wrong or foolish. The concept is a bit more viable in the other two Groupon advertisements aired last night (save the whales by whale-watching and save the rainforest by getting a Brazilian wax) only because those two situations don’t involve the actual torture, imprisonment, and death of a cultural group. So instead, the focus of “who is foolish” flips back on Groupon – people don’t feel that opposing the Chinese occupation of Tibet is foolish, or that their support (financial or otherwise) is foolish. Therefore, Groupon becomes foolish (and tone-deaf, insensitive, and more) for their advertisement. (Note: it taints Timothy Hutton pretty badly, too.)
The takeaway here is pretty simple. It’s really hard to make genocide funny. It’s pretty much going to be impossible to use genocide – be it Nazis, Tibet, or Darfur – to positively reflect your brand or to sell anything. The exception here is if you manage to come up with the musical heir to The Producers. But unless you have the modern equivalent of Springtime for Hitler under your belt, you’d best leave genocide to the documentaries and dramas, and consider something else for your first national advertising campaign.
The Chicago Tribune has a continuous Twitter-feed of responses (still continuing) to the Tibet advertisement. Some people might argue that any publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure I agree in this case – associating your product with an apparent callous regard for human life really doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to attract new users, or maintain the old.
Forbes gets the best headline out of the event, noting that Goupon’s 2-for-1 Super Bowl Special Offends Both China and Tibet Activists. Groupon had been trying to make inroads into China. Chinese reaction this morning suggests Groupon just did a worse-than-Google, as far as they’re concerned. So, shooting oneself in both feet? Check!