Yesterday’s Super Bowl featured the usual highly-produced commercials for soda, beer and cars.
Some of the ads featured innuendo and vulgar humor. Yet, you don’t hear much of an outcry these days; it’s hard to offend viewers.
But one advertisement managed to offend people across the globe.
The advertisement for the two-year-old company Groupon, which sells group discounts, begins as an earnest plea for the Tibetan people living under Chinese rule. The commercial shows snowy mountain peaks, Tibetan monks, and Tibetan children dancing. The narrator, actor Timothy Hutton, provided the voiceover.
“The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy.”
Then, the narration takes a turn, telling the viewer about other parts of Tibet.
“But they still whip up an amazing fish curry, and since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com, we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.”
The company also spoofed the causes of saving the whales and the Brazilian rainforest.
The advertising message was intended to be this: Save something valuable, and save money using our coupons. It didn’t work, said Wendy Melillo, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington.
“The ad is crass and greedy, and it’s poking fun at philanthropy, which typically doesn’t go over very well.”
Melillo said for an advertisement to be effective, it has to do two things: get noticed and change behavior. She added that the Groupon advertisement scores very well in the first category. The Tibet commercial has created tremendous buzz in online chat rooms and social media sites.
But Melillo said with the second category of changing customer behavior, “It fails miserably because it’s kind of a bait and switch, and people don’t like that because the hook draws you in and you’re thinking one way, and then the switch at the end, I think, has rightly angered people.”
Advertisers have long tried to slightly offend and provoke to grab our attention. But you have to know which topics are out of bounds, said Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at the Villanova School of Business. The cause of Tibet is one of those topics.
“In many ways, I think it (the Groupon commercial) presents Americans in a bad light in that it suggests that the plight of the people in Tibet is not all that important relative to getting a good deal when a relatively wealthy American goes out to eat,” said Taylor.
The director of the organization Free Tibet, Stephanie Brigden also felt the advertisement was in bad taste. But she did find a silver lining.
“If it raises the profile of Tibet, obviously that’s positive. People need to understand what’s going on,” said Brigden. “What would be great if this now kind of pricks people’s consciousness into saying, actually, I need to do something. And then it will have a really great outcome.”
The company Groupon said the advertisements were parodies meant to poke fun at themselves. They’re also offering matching donations, up to $100,000, to support the causes they spoofed.