I saw the Groupon Tibet ad online the night of the Superbowl, Sunday night a couple of weeks ago. The thirty second ad started with a shot of the Potala and went:
“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 two hundred of us bought at groupon.com, we are getting thirty dollars worth of Tibetan food for just thirteen dollars at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.”
What a weird, strange ad, I thought. Tibetans don’t eat fish curry, and that Himalayan restaurant looks Indian, and that supposedly Tibetan guy looks Nepalese or Sikkimese and also constipated.
So I was bemused and I was confused because I thought, “This cannot be the Superbowl ad.” The ad didn’t look like a $3 million dollar ad. The ad looked, frankly, a bit cheap. And I don’t cheap in the sense of “This belittles the Tibet issue” because I don’t think it did that but cheap in the sense of “This can’t have cost anything to make”. Why would you pay so much to sell something that doesn’t look very expensive?
But I was not offended and I was not outraged. If anything, I was just a little bit excited that a Groupon ad featured Tibet. And a little bit awed that Groupon didn’t sugarcoat the opening lines to suit the Chinese palate: “The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy.”
In Tibet circles, this is a big deal. It’s huge. A company had the conscience and courage to say something where even governments sit silent for fear of offending China.
But the next morning and the following days, I saw the media (social, political, commercial) tearing the ad to shreds. These were some of the headlines that came out:
Groupon-Tibet: Clever Ad or Crass Commercialism? from CNN
Groupon’s Gaffe from Chicago Tribune
When Edgy Goes Overboard from Politics Daily
Groupon Offends With Tibet-Themed Superbowl Ad from Forbes
The avalanche of criticism to the Groupon Tibet ad can be boiled down to this: that Groupon was turning the suffering of the Tibetan people into a way of making a buck, that they were “insensitive” to the “real crisis” in Tibet.
The show of support, the moral outrage on behalf of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan issue, was overwhelming, humbling and inspiring. I have no doubt that for so many people, it was an issue of principle. They must have felt like they were standing up for Tibetans.
But was the outrage really necessary? After all, Groupon’s heart was in the right place and they were not only acknowledging that Tibetans have a problem, but also offering people a way to help by donating to an NGO that helps Tibetans.
I wondered if the fact that Groupon was a more manageable and less vengeful target than the Chinese Communist Party had anything to do with the enthusiasm of the outrage; if Tibet supporters were unconsciously heartened and relieved to have a more human target than the totalitarian Cyborg machine that is the CCP.
I noticed that my fellow Tibetans’ reaction was quite different from the reaction of non-Tibetans. Far from being upset or insulted, they were just happy that a Superbowl ad mentioned Tibet. They were a bit confused about the slightly schizophrenic nature of the ad, and thought it could have been done better, but overall they were happy with the ad.
And they were all surprised at the reaction of the news media. They all wondered what the big deal was. Look at China’s reaction, they said. The Chinese government and Chinese people were terribly upset that Groupon had said Tibetans were in trouble. If something upsets China this much, doesn’t it mean that Groupon has done something right for Tibetans?
But should we be happy about a thing just because China is unhappy about it? And no matter how ironic the Groupon ad was, for a second there didn’t it look as if the suffering of the Tibetan people was made the springboard for selling coupons for fish curry? Is our outrage threshold too low? Should we take a page from the Chinese book and cry bloody murder every time we spy a paper cut as a way to stave off future injury?
These were all valid questions I was asking myself. But ultimately, I think my fellow Tibetans were right. For us, it’s an issue of survival above all else. We don’t really have the luxury of getting offended at any supporters, not least an organization that has taken our message to a hundred million people.