Super Bowl Tibet Ad Sparks Online Outrage

Group buying web service Groupon spent a reported $3 million on their ads during last night’s Super Bowl. One of the spots, however, provoked a mixture of outrage and disbelief from all sides of the Tibet issue.

“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 we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.”

The video is available on YouTube. It was quickly posted to Youku as well, but was apparently harmonised soon after.

Vivek Kunwar, a co-owner of the featured restaurant, said that the script had not prepared him for the finished commercial. “When we saw it, it was an ‘uh-oh’ moment, even for me.”

Among the reactions on Twitter was a post by the New Yorker’s Tad Friend, who wrote that the ad “was so appalling it made me cancel their daily email; it turned a vague dislike into enmity”. Web comic author Jeph Jacques tweeted, “Thousands of people died at the WTC on 9/11, but thanks to Groupon we got really cheap hotel rooms at ground zero!” The Boston Globe’s Brand Bowl 2011 site, which tracks Twitter reactions to Super Bowl ads, ranked Groupon highly by virtue of the almost 18,000 tweets referring to their spots, but these were overwhelmingly (almost 75%) negative.

While Westerners objected to Groupon’s making light of the Tibetan situation, posters on Sina Weibo were equally incensed by the ad’s perceived “Free Tibet” theme. The Nanfang collected and translated some reactions, including these:

@集成的世界:Groupon,想成为第二个Google吗?在Super Bowl上打出了free tibet的广告,想打入中国市场的Groupon此举让人真是难以理解

Yicheng de Shijie : Groupon, do you want to be the second Google? The free Tibet ad is unbelievable! Now Groupon wants to enter the China market?

我爱小贱:Groupon脑子进水了?妈的你做个广告跟拯救西藏有毛联系?!顶这么个噱头,装什么人道!操!

Wo ai xiao jian: Is Groupon people’s mind drained with water? A f%£&ing ad about free Tibet? Is that even relevant? Pretend to care about human rights? F%£&!

As Charles Custer wrote at China Geeks:

It is, of course, offensive. But what’s so remarkable about it is that they managed to make something that was simultaneously offensive to both sides of the Tibet debate. Now that takes some doing! How did they pull it off?

Needless to say, pretty much everyone hates the ad. “Free Tibet” groups are condemning it (as they should), “One China” supporters are condemning it (as they should), and people who have more nuanced opinions on Tibet but aren’t tasteless orientalists are also condemning it (as they should). The ad is racking up condemnations from Youtube to Sina Weibo …

Many Chinese netizens are also commenting that this will make it impossible for Groupon to succeed in the Chinese market, although I wouldn’t have held out much hope for that being successful anyway, as there are already several Chinese group buying sites with their roots planted firmly.

A recent China Daily article put the number of these sites at 1,880 by the end of last year, and described the group buying trend in general, including Groupon’s move into the fray partnered with Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings.

On their blog, Groupon had earlier tried to explain the idea behind the ads:

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”)?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause ….

If you guys pony up, Groupon will contribute matching donations of up to $100,000 for three featured charities – Rainforest Action Network, buildOn, and the Tibet Fund — and Groupon credit of up to $100,000 for contributions made to Greenpeace.

The company, at least, is not alone. Last week, designer Kenneth Cole suffered a similar backlash after tweeting, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo”.

See also: Gady Epstein’s post at Forbes.com.