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Groupon's Tibet Ad: When Edgy Goes Overboard

4 years ago
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Groupon's Super Bowl ad debut featuring Tibet made a splash, but not the kind the company perhaps expected.

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, 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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The ad that I saw with Elizabeth Hurley or whatever her name is was just as egregous. What is wrong with you people? It is not OK to do this! Take a serious situation and get real campy with it? I will not even think of using Groupon ... that is the only way this stops.

February 15 2011 at 1:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What I'm sick of is that every company these days is positioning itself as being socially "responsible" and has some cause it's affiliating with. Just make and sell products and make a profit, already! Consumers don't realize that all that "good will" is actually costing them more. If I want to support a cause, I'll do it myself, thank you.

February 14 2011 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Crispin Porter + Bogusky & Groupon see themselves as clever provocateurs; when in fact they are sad hypocrites.

Trying to buy a Charity Org shield to gain credibility is impossible at this point, they were blatant, shameless, and even proud of being #1 Twit-err; until the double edge of the sword revealed itself.

Word on the street: Their I.P.O. is D.O.A. ;-o

February 09 2011 at 4:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"On one level, I don't think Tibet ever gets enough news so I was really happy there was some exposure."


February 09 2011 at 3:18 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Really dont people have real crap to be angry about instead of a super bowl commercial. I was more angry that an American women does not know the words to our national anthem. How about after 9-11 when every charity in the world was using the tragedy for their own cause. As Americans were vulnerable. Really the people of Tibet who have been there for thousands of years, we are going to angry over a commercial.

February 09 2011 at 5:00 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

....and Groupon (who is a great company, that hires a lot of great people) is getting millions of dollars worth of publicity from this ad...and by the way...these PC types need to get a life! If you feel so strongly about the Tibetan something about it..instead of sitting on your couch, in your 2000 square foot, heated and air conditioned homes, watching a sports game that pays it's players 10's of millions of dollars for playing a game! Maybe you could sell your "Smart Cars" and ride a bike to work...then donate your savings to the Tibetan cause!! Just a thought!!!

February 09 2011 at 4:55 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I thought that this was the best ad of the night!!! It was witty and caught me totally off guard!!! Celebs are always going off on some issue, which after a while seems less sincere, and more "self promoting". I think that is part of what they were poking fun at. GREAT AD!!! Sorry that some people didn't get the humor.

February 09 2011 at 4:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i always tought that to be in advertising at least you should know what you were talking about curry is used in india not in tibet and when your are so high in the mouintains it is very hard to get fish so people in tibet dont eat that much fish ad people should realise that people pay attention to what they say so i hope they pay attention to what they are saying

February 09 2011 at 4:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This is what happens when a 20's something kid becomes a CEO of a worldwide company that has no real leadership. 20's something maybe able to come up with ideas that catch the wave in the new media arena but they don't have the social sense or emotional growth that comes with time to understand what offends people. There sense of "whats funny" or "whats important" do not relate to the general public. I signed up for Groupon to see what it was all about, after a couple of weeks of meaningless offers and then this insulting TV ad I drop them and so have many of my friends.

February 09 2011 at 12:58 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

What is the issue here? I didn't catch the China/Tibet issue either. To me it was a call to protect a culture or a history rather than a political system. Political systems are what make a culture function not what defines them.

February 09 2011 at 12:04 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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