Groupon, an outfit that offers discount coupons online, ran what it no doubt thought was a witty little ad during the Superbowl (apparently some kind of US sporting event in which massive numbers of people celebrate physical excellence by sitting in front of TV sets for hours, consuming large quantities of calories washed down by alcoholic beverages).
The ad begins with what appears to be a serious tone, with the actor Timothy Hutton saying: “The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy.” This is of course, true. Since the Chinese occupation began, Tibetan culture and religion has been oppressed. Many Tibetans have fled the country in order to escape persecution. Monasteries have been dynamited. Buddhist scriptures have been destroyed. Ethnic Han Chinese have flooded into Tibet, outnumbering the native population and overwhelming the culture. Most seriously of all, many Tibetans have been imprisoned and tortured for trying to practice their Buddhist religion.
But then Hutton switches to a more “jovial” tone, noting that Tibetans are still able to “whip up a great fish curry”, and that “since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com, we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15.”
Never mind that “fish curry” is not a Tibetan dish, the switch in tone inevitably conveys the message, “Who cares about all that suffering! Save money with Groupon!” It’s an appallingly cynical use of the suffering of the Tibetan people. Groupon appears to be saying “Tibet doesn’t matter. Their suffering is a joke.” The company’s defense of their ad actually just reinforces that impression. Groupon’s founder, Andrew Mason, is quoted in the UK’s Telegraph as saying:
“So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause … but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself?”
To me there’s something nauseating about “a passionate call to action to help yourself.” As if we’re not already saturated with those. Mason seems to take his job rather too seriously, apparently thinking that saving money is the highest value — higher than compassion or any of that boring stuff. It sounds like he needs to get out more, and perhaps to get in touch with more fully human values outside the grubby marketplace.
The “so what” is that the ad trivializes suffering. In fact it invites people to actively disregard others’ suffering. The ad itself presents the suffering of the Tibetan people as a joke — something less important than “helping yourself” by saving money at a restaurant. Had the ad been focused on the problems of some fictitious ethnic group, Groupon might have got away with this emotional bait and switch game, and it might even have been genuinely funny. But trying to turn the suffering — including rape, torture, and cultural genocide — of real people into the “straight-man” lead-in to a joke about saving money is just crass and insensitive.
Update: Yes, Groupon raises money for Tibet. Although apparently not very effectively, and this ad was not even indirectly a pitch to help Tibet.