Tag Archives: Advertising

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.

China’s Latest PR Fail?

You may recall last year, it was announced that China was spending bundles of money to create an advertisement designed to appeal to US audiences and turn the tide of US public opinion. All of China’s shiniest celebrities were called in, and then it all disappeared from the news.

But with Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has come news that the advertisement is out, and now it, or at least clips of it, are being played on the giant screens in Times Square! So what did the Chinese government decide was the best way to convince Americans to like China? Observe:


OK, maybe we’re not getting the whole picture from that news report, and we also can’t hear whatever audio will go with the ad, but it appears to consist of (1) shots of Chinese celebrities standing around and (2) a big 中国 (which Americans can’t read) next to a very tiny “China”. Um, what?

Actually, on the face of it, I sort of like the principle I imagine they started with: China has some cool, and unique, people, and Americans don’t really know that because China is some faceless “othery” place to them. This is true. However, this approach to introducing Chinese people to the US is, well, dumb.

First of all, regardless of what the audio says, the people are doing absolutely nothing in any of these shots, which makes them unmemorable and pointless. They don’t serve to illustrate anything other than that Chinese people exist, which was something Americans already knew. Seriously, you got together sixty of China’s most beautiful, famous people, and then asked them to stand around for a while?

(If you’re curious who, exactly, is standing around, check out this list the Baidu Beat folks have put together from the footage we have so far.)

Secondly, I wonder about the use of celebrities at all, given that 95% of the people in the video aren’t people Americans know or will be impressed by at all. I don’t think anyone is going to see that video and think, “Wow, Tan Dun is Chinese!” Most people have no clue who Tan Dun is, and those who do know him already know that he’s Chinese. As the one woman they ask about it in the news report above says, “I know Yao Ming, and uh, some of the supermodels…”

It is also worth pointing out that they obviously didn’t attempt to rework the ad at all to make it fit on those Times Square screens, so in many of the shots half of the names are obscured, people are cut out, etc. Bush league.

Maybe the audio somehow turns it into a captivating, mind-blowing coup d’etat somehow. But I highly doubt it.

It’s telling that at the end of that news report, the only American they ask about the ad as a whole says the advertisement is “moving” because it shows “where people work” and “their fields of interest.” Captivating!

I look forward to seeing the full video as it will air (or perhaps is already airing?) on US TV. But based on this quick introduction, this whole thing seems like a colossal waste of time and money. Can’t say that surprises me at all.

UPDATE: We now have the full video. It is even worse than I imagined, and I will write more about it later today or tomorrow, but in the interim, here it is for your (lack of) enjoyment. (Here’s a China-friendly version)

UPDATE 2: The release of the full video obliges me to add a couple things to my original assessment. First, the audio adds absolutely nothing to the video in terms of context, so I was right about that. Second, the design of the video itself is fairly flawed. Granted, we’re watching compressed web videos, so the colors are off and the resolution is low, but even at 420p, the names of the Chinese people in the video above are unreadable, and even the larger white text is very difficult to read when it is against a white backdrop. Presumably, if I were watching this on a large HD TV, these issues would be resolved, but it seems odd to design an advertisement with text too small to read in a web video and (I suspect) also to small to read on a standard-def TV when sitting a reasonable distance away.

There is one angle from which we might consider this ad a win for China, see the comments of Christopher C. Heselton below for more details on that. It’s possible that’s all their goal was with the ad, and if so, they have probably succeeded. But it’s equally clear that this ad is utterly meaningless to foreigners. Hard to know for sure whether or not the government really cares.

The “Chinese Professor” and American Scaremongering

The following American political advertisement has been making the rounds among China watchers even as it makes the rounds on television sets in America. James Fallows also wrote about the ad, praising its technique if not its content.

As I see it, there are two issues with this. The first is obvious, and Fallows points it out as well:

If you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries — all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.

This is undoubtedly true. But then Fallows takes things a step further than I’m willing to go:

Although I realize that many Chinese people will take offense at it, mainly the chortling section at the end, for me it passes the test for the proper use of “foreign menace” themes in US discourse. Although the ad is clearly meant to make Americans shudder at the idea of a Chinese-dominated future, at no point does it say that the canny foreigners did anything wrong. It uses them as a spur for us to do better — which, as laid out at length here, is the right way to use foreign comparisons. And the stated argument, even from the triumphalist Chinese professor, is that the Americans erred by turning away from their own values.

I can’t agree with that. For one thing, as he’s pointed out earlier, the ad is patently misleading. It’s hard for me to believe that any argument based on lies is ultimately what’s best for the American people. But moreover, the ad reinforces the paranoid idea that Chinese people are somehow intent on replacing America, and using their ownership of US debt to turn Americans into slaves. The bluish tint, the eerily synthetic-but-vaguely-asian-sounding soundtrack, the cultural revolution posters, and the sinister group laugh at the end of the advertisement are all meant to make us feel threatened. The professor is shifty from the start, but the whole room erupts into laughter at his joke and we, the audience, can see the truth: all Chinese people want to destroy or enslave America. This argument is just as stupid coming from American political groups as it is when it’s coming from the propaganda arm of the Chinese government.

Fallows is right; the ad doesn’t explicitly say the Chinese have done anything wrong, but the atmosphere created in the advertisement certainly implies it. And while this will probably work as a “spur for us to do better”, it will also work to further the deepening suspicions many Americans already harbor about Chinese people.

In fact, it already has. That link will take you to a poorly-doctored version of the same video, with the subtitles replaced. The new subtitles advance a far more paranoid (and profane) version of the China-America entanglement.

Of course, C.A.G.W. isn’t the only political group waving the “Chinese devils” flag to rally the troops ((Because now that there’s a democrat in office, we’ve got to stop all this wasteful spending and go back to the carefree, thrifty days of George W. Bush!)). Many democrats, faced with more difficult races than they were hoping for, have adopted similar tactics, although because they’re democrats, they’ve generally done it much less competently.

So, a message to all American political organizations: if you’re going to play the China Boogeyman card, could you please do it in a way that makes sense and is based on reality, rather than the made-up future where China is a small-government, high-tech, education capital but still apparently adorns the walls of its classrooms with Cultural Revolution era kitsch?

[Incidentally, there’s something else that bothers me about the ad. Granted I’m not a native speaker, and I’ve long since given up on hearing anything other than a southern or Taiwanese accent coming out of the mouth of anyone “Chinese” in something filmed in the US ((Apparently, CAGW couldn’t find any 东北人 to play the professor because they are all 活雷锋 and wouldn’t do something that demeaning.)), but the “professor’s” cadence on that last sentence makes my teeth grind. I’m not talking about the tones, the way he says 现在他们都得给我们干活 sounds weird. And now that I think about it, shouldn’t there be a change-of-state 了 there?]