A television advertisement on Tibet aired during the U.S. National Football League Super Bowl clash has come under fire for trivializing the issue of human rights in the Chinese-ruled mountainous region.
The advertisement by the U.S.-based online coupon retailer Groupon, watched by more than a 100 million people, has also been criticized in China and could hamper the company’s joint venture plans in the world’s most populous nation.
In the commercial, actor Timothy Hutton informs viewers about Tibet's endangered culture before cutting to an explanation of how using the company’s service can net customers deals on food at Tibetan restaurants.
“The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy,” the ad begins.
“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 the Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”
Mary Beth Markey, president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said that viewers were angered by the advertisement’s implication of commercial gain.
“Groupon is trying to make this work for them commercially—and that’s the offense. Certainly the situation in Tibet is serious and dire, and should Groupon be profiting from this? That’s the question, and that’s what people are offended by,” she said.
But she added that from an advocacy standpoint, the commercial brought an important issue to light that had not been receiving enough attention.
“More than 100 million people got to hear some important information on Tibet that they may have not known or they may have forgotten, which is that the Tibetan people are in trouble," she said.
"That’s fundamentally what is most important to us.”
Tibetans complain their rights are being eroded under Beijing’s rule. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has accused China of perpetrating "cultural genocide" in the region but Beijing regards him as a dangerous separatist.
On its company blog, Groupon described the campaign as “a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA (public service announcement)-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause … but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself.”
The company admitted to having a “peculiar taste in humor” that “made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked.”
But Groupon also suggested that customers who had saved money using their deals might donate to the Tibetan cause.
On its website, the company offers a link to donate to the Tibet Fund, a New York-based rights group that assists Tibetan refugees living in India and Nepal, and pledges to contribute matching donations of up to U.S. $100,000 to the organization.
Groupon originally grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site called ThePoint.com.
Still, many viewers said they were unaware that the campaign had any link with donating to charitable causes whatsoever.
They were also not impressed by the light-hearted reference to Tibet's crisis and felt the adverisement trivialized the issue.
Critics of the advertisement on Twitter began calling for users of Groupon’s services to unsubscribe themselves from the company’s e-mail list, which informs members of daily deals.
User urbanhoustonian wrote “I really think more people should be crucifying Groupon for their #superbowl# ad," while user OlkinComm wrote “IMHO, Groupon spent $ offending ppl.”
User alanronkin called on viewers to vent their frustration directly to the company.
“The #Tibet #groupon ad was really over the line. I sent an e-mail via their website. I encourage you to do the same.”
The reaction in China, where Groupon is actively expanding its offerings and increasing staff, was one of anger to the suggestion that Tibetan culture is being stamped out by Beijing.
CNN quoted user Mofei on Sina.com microblogging service Weibo as writing, "Just saw the ad, are they oblivious?"
Another user, Yageboo, said Groupon’s approach to the Chinese market was now "doomed to failure."
"Groupon's lax approach to the Chinese market is not going to work!", the user wrote.
Sina.com user cnbuff410 criticized Groupon for playing a “free Tibet” advertisement during the Super Bowl.
“Do you actually want to enter the Chinese market?," he asked.
Groupon is expected to launch a joint venture with Chinese Internet giant Tencent in coming months which will require the blessing of government officials in Beijing.
But the company may have damaged its prospects of entering the China market by running a commercial that questions China's right to sovereignty in Tibet.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.