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 Groupon.com 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 Groupon.com 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 Groupon.com 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 Money.com‘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 Groupon.com. 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 Groupon.com 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: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/. 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?