Groupon Super Bowl Ad: Unethical

A collective gasp could be heard at one particular moment last night during the Super Bowl. No, I’m not talking about the gasp following Nick Collins’ 37 yard touchdown run in the first quarter. I’m talking about the gasp that issued at the punchline of the now-infamous commercial featuring Timothy Hutton.

You can see the 30-second spot here, on YouTube: Groupon – Tibet

And here’s the entire transcript:

“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 is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought at we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”

Immediately following the commercial’s appearance, Twitter lit up with comments about how “offensive” and “tasteless” the commercial was. Media outlets today have been abuzz with criticism and commentary. The headlines tell the tale. According to NBC Chicago: “Groupon Super Bowl Ad Not a Good Deal”. CNN‘s headline was “Groupon spends big on controversial (tasteless?) Super Bowl spots”. Time asks: “And the Most Offensive Super Bowl Ad Goes To: Groupon?”

But the ad was more than just tasteless. It was unethical. To recruit — and then trivialize — the plight of the people of Tibet to sell Groupon’s services shows a jaw-dropping level of disrespect. And while we often think of disrespect as a matter of bad manners, showing suitable respect for other humans’ basic needs and interets is a core moral principle.

It’s also worth pointing out that the commercial played, perhaps unintentionally, on the unfortunate fact that, for many westerners, complex Asian societies are often most closely associated with exotic dinner fare. Yes, yes, Tibet is exotic and troubled. But hey, they make a yummy curry!

Who knows just what the fallout will be? There have been predictions that Groupon will lose business over this — it’s been suggested that the company may have found the limit of the notion that “there’s no such thing as bad PR.” And, predictably, there have already been calls for a boycott of Timothy Hutton (once an Academy Award winner) will likely have to go into the spokesperson’s equivalent of rehab, perhaps by working with a pro-Tibet charity of some sort.

Of course, some will cling to the notion that intended all this — that they knew the ad would be controversial, and were aiming directly at the enormous amount of free media coverage they’re now getting. Maybe that’s true. But it was a helluva gamble to take. And, if it was a gamble, it was a gamble that treated the people of Tibet as just another Asian trinket to be tossed in among the poker chips.
It’s been pointed out to me (by @Changents on Twitter) that Groupon is apparently donating money to the causes featured in its commercials. See: I’m not at all sure that that’s sufficient to overcome the worries discussed above, especially given that the disrespectful commercials is all that most people will see or know about. What do you think?

9 comments so far

  1. dcc on

    Saying the people of Tibet are just another “Asian” trinket trivializes your argument.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I never came remotely close to saying that. Please re-read.


  2. Matthew Brophy on

    I actually found another one of the commercials more ethically dubious. Entitled “Love Hurts,” the Pepsi Max commercial featuring an African American couple, where the wife constantly chastises her husband for eating junk. At the end, she throws a can of Pepsi at him, he ducks, and it hits a female runner sitting on the bench next to him. The thrown can to her head knocks the woman off the bench,leaving her groaning on the concrete sidewalk. The offending couple gets up and runs off, hand-in-hand, from the scene, leaving the innocent woman sprawled out with a possible concussion.
    Link here:

  3. PCC Advantage on

    I agree with you. The ad was completely unethical, and rather heartless, I might add.

    Not only did he lack class as James Bond, but he also lacks class as a spokesman as well.

  4. […] lost millions, perhaps billions, over their flippant attitude towards an oppressed people group. Disrespect does not even begin to describe the ad. It's borderline racism at worse and an strong indicator of […]

  5. Stefan on

    Groupon had an opportunity to come out with an ad that will solidify the public’s positive image on the company, but their Superbowl Ads did the opposite. It will set them back a bit, but Groupon will be okay down the road. (assuming they won’t have any more major blunders)

  6. Lois on

    I completely agree that this advert was wrong. I also found their advert featuring the amazon rainforest “not all deforestation is bad – you should get waxed with groupon” offensive and making a joke of the issue. Shame on you, Groupon.

  7. […] On Monday I blogged about the controversy over the ad that played during the Super Bowl, which made light of the plight of the people of Tibet. I suggested the ad was deeply disrespectful, and even played (perhaps unintentionally) on some unfortunate stereotypes. (See Groupon Super Bowl Ad: Unethical.) […]

  8. […] ON GROUPON Groupon’s Super Bowl ad rankled. Chris MacDonald, an ethicist, explains why the ad was unethical. What was Groupon thinking? Andrew Mason, its chief executive, tries to explain. The Franchise […]

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