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Sorry, Groupon: This One Goes to 11 on the Badly-Misguided-Meter, Not the Funny-Meter

I like to think I have a very healthy, sometimes irreverent sense of humor. But, you know, I draw the line at jokes that make light of a people who have been through an incredible amount of suffering and are struggling to prevent their culture from being obliterated as we speak. And I think that’s what Groupon did, intentionally or not, with their controversial ad that aired last night during the Super Bowl…

Groupon actually has good intentions here for the people of Tibet, with some proceeds from a new effort going to The Tibet Fund. In addition, the ad was directed by bona fide comic genius Christopher Guest, whose films include Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and This Is Spinal Tap. And yet, Groupon’s promotional strategy was appropriately met with a very fast and furious response, as The Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal have noted.

Some Buddhists have even joined the commentary. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review‘s editor and publisher James Shaheen said, “The ad is as dumb as it is offensive.” At his blog The Worst Horse, Shambhala Sun Space’s web editor Rod Meade Sperry asked Groupon, “Did you really think this was going to come off well? You may very well have lost more customers than you could’ve gained with that one.” And The Telegraph quoted a tweet from Bodhipaksa, who said, “Hey, #Groupon. I just saw your Superbowl ad online. What a despicable way to trivialize the suffering of and oppression of an entire people.”

At the ICT Blog, Bhuchung K. Tsering had a somewhat different take, writing:

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…

The commercial wasn’t ideal and it may be seen as tacky, but for a Super Bowl broadcast, the mother of all sports (at least in the United States), if some deviation is taken for putting the spotlight on the plight of the Tibetan people it is something that I can live with.

The Telegraph quotes Andrew Mason, Groupon’s founder, with this defense:

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”)?

Yeah, we get it. But, you know, if you have to explain to your audience why it’s supposed to be funny, that’s probably a clue that you’re lost in the woods of comedy. Another is if your jokes are made at the expense of those who are suffering.

Obviously, Groupon’s efforts to support the Tibetan people are greatly appreciated. I hope that in the future, though, they can do it without seeming so callous towards them in the process.

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1 Comment so far

  1. zenbija

    I’m kind of fascinated by this debate, though not particularly invested in it. For me, the vehement fury about the ad seems overblown, and it seems to distract from the actual problems of Tibetans and other isolated communities. It ignores a Third World Problem in favor of a First World Problem–the Tibetan controversy is not about displacement, oppression and government-sanctioned poverty, but about an ad that hurts people’s feelings. If it adds insult to injury, I think the injury is the real issue. It does bring some ironic view to the divide. We Americans can use Groupon to get a $25 meal for $10. Tibetan villagers are lucky to earn $10 in a week. This situation is there, regardless of whether Groupon mentions Tibet in their ads.

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