In Brief: Groupon Teaches us How to Please No One

Viewers of this year’s Super Bowl were treated to a special exercise during one of the advertising segments when Groupon, the group purchasing website, ran this advertisement:

UPDATE: There is now a version of this ad on Youku with Chinese subtitles as well. It will be interesting to see whether this takes off on the Chinese net or not.

It is, of course, offensive. But what’s so remarkable about it is that they managed to make something that was simultaneously offensive to both sides of the Tibet debate. Now that takes some doing! How did they pull it off?

They start by going straight for the throat of the Party line folks, by saying, “the people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy.” Obviously, this goes against the official line that everything in Tibet is great and anyway you foreigners should mind your own damn business. It’s worth noting that it’s also incredibly vague. What is the point of even mentioning that something is in jeopardy if you’re not going to address what is threatening it or how the problem can be solved?

Ah, but Groupon does offer a solution! Well, a solution for you (assuming you’re American), that is. You see, with Groupon, you can save money on Tibetan food in Chicago, allowing you to feel like you’re supporting another culture and being a “citizen of the world” without actually learning or doing anything. Thanks to Groupon, you can experience wonderful and authentic fish curry that has been “whipped up” for your discount eating pleasure by real-life oppressed minorities! Huzzah!

Of course, your eating cheap food in Chicago does nothing for Tibetan culture, which is in jeopardy from…something unspecified in the advertisement. Nor does it help the apparently-troubled Tibetan people. But it does get you cheap curry, and that’s what counts, n’est-ce pas?

Needless to say, pretty much everyone hates the ad. “Free Tibet” groups are condemning it (as they should), “One China” supporters are condemning it (as they should), and people who have more nuanced opinions on Tibet but aren’t tasteless orientalists are also condemning it (as they should). The ad is racking up condemnations from Youtube to Sina Weibo, where more than a few people have echoed the sentiments of this comment:

“That Groupon ad is really fucking brain-damaged!!!”

There are a series of Groupon ads like this, though I’m not sure if they all ran during the Super Bowl. The video descriptions on Youtube make it sound like by buying the products in the ads, one makes a contribution to the relevant cause, but that’s not at all clear from the advertisements themselves. The whole thing is very vague. If it’s really a charity initiative, it was executed very poorly. If it isn’t, well…that means it’s a joke, which is even more concerning.

Many Chinese netizens are also commenting that this will make it impossible for Groupon to succeed in the Chinese market, although I wouldn’t have held out much hope for that being successful anyway, as there are already several Chinese group buying sites with their roots planted firmly.

For a few netizen translations, check out this post on the Nanfang or just go here to read the comments in real time.

UPDATE: Shanghaiist has a post chock full of info on this, which includes this tidbit from Groupon’s founder:

“The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?”

OK, yeah, I see what you were going for. However, that’s a highly questionable idea to begin with, and it was especially awfully executed. If you want to know more behind the scenes stuff, you can check out the Groupon blog post on it here. At the moment, there’s only one comment, so I’m assuming they’re not going to post any negative comments about the ads on their own blog.

35 thoughts on “In Brief: Groupon Teaches us How to Please No One”

  1. Are we really supposed to get the impression that we are helping Tibet by using Groupon? I thought the message of the ad was supposed to be, “Social conscious types are busy worrying about problems like this in other countries … but let’s forget about the crap and get discounts on food!”, basically implying that the Tibet issue is not important. Otherwise, why the abrupt shift in tone?


  2. Hey Custer, not really sure about the Free Tibet crowd being ‘tasteless orientalists,’ given that the majority of people I’ve met who care passionately about freeing tibet are themselves Tibetan.

    I know the archetype you’re alluding to- the pot-smoking university student, Free Tibet poster prominently displayed next to his bong collection. Or the older yinji buddhist convert, going on about how how pre-Chinese tibet was a utopian paradise… but again, of the people I’ve met who care about it beyond bumper-sticker fodder, the vast majority want to free tibet because they or their family members or their friends or their neighbors have been discriminated against/beaten/imprisoned/disappeared/worse.

    I’ll even put two disclaimers on here- personally, I think Tibet would be best off as a part of a very different China, one with a very different government. If China actually delivered on the promises made over the last 60 years, Tibetans would have a lot to gain from being part of China. Second, I actually wasn’t really offended by the commercial because hey, its a stupid advertisement for part of the annual orgy of consumerism that is the super bowl, good luck finding anything meaningful in there.


  3. That advertisement is a total mindf#&%! I honestly can not tell if they are attempting to help Tibetans or if they are simply saying Tibetans are in trouble, well lets enjoy their curry anyway. The segue from oppressed minority with 1000yard stare to delighted food server was especially priceless.

    The future of Tibet is up to Tibetans, end of story.


  4. “Many Chinese netizens are also commenting that this will make it impossible for Groupon to succeed in the Chinese market”

    Of course! Because the idea has already been copied by the Chinese. The ‘actual’ Groupon has no chance in here! Copy first, ask questions later.. 😉

    But seriously, what a totally awkward ad, and awkward contraversy. Americans who know ‘vaguely’ where Tibet is on a World Map, get about 10 seconds of ‘fake protest, smashcut to a guy sitting down for lunch in Chicago’, whereby the setup has absolutely nothing to do with the benefit of using Groupon, or the ‘saving’ of their culture.

    Remember… ITS THE SUPERBOWL. There are no Hipsters watching, of HuffPoseurs. These are dudes, halfway gone, shoving nachos in their face, and the ‘1970’s film effect’ of Tibet was kinda cool, but the message was basically supposed to be funny. You got it: the ad is ‘funny’ because we’re not going to help the Tibetans, we’re just gonna save a few bucks in a Chicago restaurant.


  5. I think the whole thing will blow up in Groupon’s face. Tribune said the add discounted Taste. Forbes says the adds are a sign that Groupon will fail like Yahoo.


  6. Hey, those cats @Groupon are just getting started! Let’s give them more fuel for their fire. Maybe they’ll actually use it!

    Go to and give them some ideas on what they should run for their next run of ads!


  7. I thought the ad was pretty funny because it went off differently than what was expected. All of the free Tibet people are just pissed because the ad didn’t turn out to be this moralistic mumbo jumbo which they are accustomed to hearing.

    On the whole culture thing, the major reason why tibetan culture has succeeded better than many other cultures today is because of the commercialism, specifically the rebranding of its own branch of buddhism. Rather than using fish curry as an example, would people be pissed if Groupon carried a 50% discount to a speech by one of the lamas?

    I also do not think it’s a far stretch to say that eating Tibetan food helps to spread its culture. Before China was known for making cheap crap at walmart, Chinatowns became a popular place to visit for all kinds of people mostly because of the food. It’s bullshit to say that Chinese food didn’t help spread Chinese culture because it clearly got some people more interested in learning about China. I would say it’s a far better mechanism to get people interested in certain culture than politics or religion.


  8. Forget the ad. Who needs a discounted bowl of lentils, but the truly retarded component was the half-time entertainment. Cringe Central.


  9. “The whole thing is very vague. If it’s really a charity initiative, it was executed very poorly.”
    1. Vague? But, really… it’s not. Definitely not a charity initiative. I saw a few of them as ads before YouTube videos yesterday and I thought their punch line was pretty clear.

    “If it isn’t, well… that means it’s a joke, which is even more concerning.”
    2. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend NOT to find jokes concerning. I’m more worried about the people who are serious.

    This sort of ad has nothing on Dane Cook or Jack Black or some of those fantastic condom ads, a hallmark of which is a wince followed by a laugh. One of the indicators of the strength of a nation’s tradition of free speech is the breadth of topics its comedians are willing to delve into, and I cringe every time I see the sort of high-handed, 居高临下 social pressure exerted by condemnations meant to “politically correct” them.

    Give it a rest, people.


  10. @ Ethan:

    1. Oh, but it IS! They ARE actually soliciting donations for charities to help those causes! Yes, that’s woefully unclear in the videos, but that’s what they told me when I sent their PR folks an email. If you need further evidence they were vague, look at lolz’s comment here, clearly he interpreted the ads as actually advocating saving Tibetan culture through eating at US Tibetan restaurants.

    2. What I mean is that it’s concerning they suck so badly at making jokes. This isn’t about “your joke wasn’t politically correct,” the problem is more like: “your joke is so poorly executed it’s not even really clear that you’re joking.”

    Also, there’s a difference between comedians telling politically incorrect jokes and corporations mangling politically incorrect “jokes”. Plenty of comedians have made harsher jokes about Tibet, and you’ll notice there are no condemnations of comedians on this blog. Groupon, though, is a major company that’s in the process of working out a deal to enter the Chinese market with one of China’s biggest internet companies. I don’t think it’s inappropriate or unfair for anyone to critique their ad on this, a political blog about China.


  11. @ Custer:
    1. I saw their offer of donations on China Digital Times, and it strikes me as a very small sum meant to deflect criticism about the ad – the main purpose of which is (to make the dichotomy clear) NOT to act “a charity initiative,” but rather to get people to use a service.
    2. Let’s not backpedal to the safe zone, shall we? If you’re going to join the Police Force of Political Rectitude then at least put on the badge. You said that you “hate” and “condemn” the ad, as well as finding it “offensive” – is this merely because it seemed (to you) that it might be a charity venture, and the quasi-political content might influence the company’s future in the Chinese market? I can fully agree with you on the latter and still see the vitriol as completely uncalled for.


  12. The “Himalayan Restaurant” featured in Groupon’s commercial is actually in a suburb of Chicago but the fish curry that they “whip up” is a recipe from Kerala (India), not Tibet.

    The other offensive commercial by Groupon made a connection between deforestation of the Brazilian rain forest and Brazilian waxing of Elizabeth Hurley’s jungle.


  13. “but the truly retarded component was the half-time entertainment.”

    Black Eyed Peas was awesome, way better than most of the performances from the 70s musicians and on par with Prince’s performance a few years ago. The most athletic moment was when Usher jumped over Will.I.Am’s head and landed in a split. Can you imagine anyone from the Who did that? The old geezers would of landed in a hospital instead.

    I did find Fergie a bit annoying but whatever.


  14. Based on the dictionary definition of ‘culture’ – “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought”, I do not see Tibetan culture is in danger in any aspect, any way.

    Other than the untrue statement to deceive and mislead the American people, overall the ad is excellent to me.

    By the way, I will not go to any Tibetan restaurant, even with 100% discount. I prefer American great western barbecue.


  15. Many entertainment critics are saying the Black Eyed Peas pulled off one of the worst half-time shows in Super Bowl history. Mainly because Fergie and the others can’t really sing and their off-key voices require electronic production that is hard to reproduce live and because their songs are rather juvenile. The old rockers at least have authentic musical chops and better songs.

    I agree with the critics, but I’m not sure that The Who or the Rolling Stones are really the right fit.


  16. @ Slim. The Who and the RS is an even worse suggestion as they attract the wrong demographic – fat, beyond-it retired baby boomers who allegedly can recall the ’60s – and you know the joke here. (You either catch a band live and in its prime, or forget it.)

    Anyway, I’m predicting a change of musical strategy next Bowl with the return of Grand Funk Railroad – the chest hair, the flared duds and white platforms.


  17. Ethan, it appears whoever decided to donate to China Digital Times is not aware of the fact CDT is a mouth piece of the US-government. CDT’s funding from NED (CIA front funded by Congress) is not a secret.

    Anyhow, in considering the Chinese people’s reaction, I’d be interested how we Americans would react, if a Chinese company advertised around the plight of Native Americans, or donated to AIM or Free Lenord Peltier movement? For one they’d be raked over by Fox News.


  18. Gaaaawd ChasL, do these silly “what ifs” never get old for you? It would be quite a different situation, because China/Chinese society doesn’t have much of a track record of giving a rat’s ass about the problems of peoples in other countries (which makes it hard for them to comprehend that some people might care about the problems of Tibetans out of sympathy for the underdog and not necessarily because they’re eager to see China divided into pieces that can easily be conquered by a new 8-Country Allied Army), and so such a thing would be seen as nothing but the same tit-for-tat “you guys did it too” that we see on boards like this every time someone says the T-word.

    Huanqiu has weighed in on this now, so I guess this might be more than a blip.

    It quotes the Financial Times as saying that the ad “offends everyone,” but funnily enough says nothing about the non-Chinese (oh, pardon me, and/or non-Han Chinese) perspective on why it’s distasteful.


  19. @ChasL. Is there any site in the universe where you haven’t posted on CDT and NED.

    Have you considered psychiatric help for monomania?

    And who pays for the Confucius Institutes which infest numerous western universities, as well as the diaspora rent-a-crowds organised around big PRC os events?


  20. I don’t see how this ad enrages the Chinese government. You don’t see the Chinese government publicly denouncing this ad. I thought this ad is kind of funny… at the expense at the Tibetans.


  21. Custer says ” “Free Tibet” groups are condemning it (as they should), “One China” supporters are condemning it (as they should), and people who have more nuanced opinions on Tibet but aren’t tasteless orientalists are also condemning it (as they should).”

    Which Tibetan organization has officially condemned the ads? Who are you labeling “tasteless orientalists”? Your credibility has sunken to sub-zero level on Tibetan issues.


  22. The brazilian collective purchase site “Peixe Urbano” (urban fish) did it worst!
    One of its associates, a famous TV anchor, twitted an offer to help the Rio’s flood victims… purchasing coupons on his site!! It was like ‘go to my site, register, buy our coupons and then make a donation, all with your money’

    The link, on portuguese:


  23. wats up friend. you’ve put up a good blog and i truly enjoyed reading your posts. i wonder how you know all this stuff. i was pleased when i saw your blog. what blogging platform did you use for this blog. i’m using wordpress and i find it somewhat tough. are you using wordpress too? if yes can you tell me about the themes and plugins you use for your blog. i will be pleased if you assist me on this.


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