After spending big bucks -- about $3 million -- for the spot, plus the cost of a trendy ad firm, Groupon won not kudos but criticisms for its efforts. Now, the company is trying to explain the ads and repair the damage at the same time as it prepares for an initial public offering.
The ad began with scenes of the Himalayan land in the western part of China. Tibetans have protested their lack of freedom under the Chinese government, with many Tibetans imprisoned as a result.
"The people of Tibet are in trouble," actor Timothy Hutton says at one point. "Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry."
Then he goes on to rave about the Groupon discount he used at a Chicago restaurant. Click play below to watch ad:
Twitter lit up with backlash against the ad. One employee of the agency that created the ad, Crispin Porter+Bogusky, tweeted in response: "Pretend to be upset by our #groupon ad, but we got people talking about Tibet & are donating money. More than what you're doing." He later deleted the tweet, but it was retweeted several times. Even some Chinese were offended by the ad, according to a Forbes blog posting, a bad sign considering Groupon hopes to expand to the country. An AdWeek online column headline called the spot "Bad Taste, Pure and Simple."
One advocate of Tibetan freedom had mixed emotions about the ad.
"I was shocked to see the commercial. At first, I thought it was something positive about Tibet," said Giovanni Vassallo, president of the San Francisco Bay are chapter of Friends of Tibet. "On one level, I don't think Tibet ever gets enough news so I was really happy there was some exposure."
But, he said, "It wasn't funny. It could have been done better. It felt like it was something degrading toward the Tibet cause."
Groupon's slogan for the Tibet ad and two others was "save the money," and the Chicago-based company is raising money for The Tibet Fund and other causes at SaveTheMoney.org, with Groupon matching donations. Monday, Groupon's CEO took to his blog to explain the idea behind the ads.
"The firm that conceived the ad, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands," Andrew Mason wrote. "Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon."
The Groupon ad isn't the first time Crispin Porter has rubbed consumers the wrong way. The company has taken heat for anonymous viral campaigns, and once encouraged people to defriend others on Facebook in exchange for a Burger King Whopper.
"The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it's bad business and it's not where our hearts are," Mason concluded in his blog post.
Beyond the tastelessness of using a beleaguered people to sell something, there was the other taste debate in the ad, pointed out by Vassallo.
"It's kind of weird that they would choose fish curry, when Tibetan people don't really eat fish and curry is Indian."
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