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Groupon’s Tibet Super Bowl ad offends everyone

Aside from deciding the champion of pigskin, the Super Bowl has long been the time when companies roll out their most high-budget, titillating or controversial commercials. But last night, collaborative coupon-savings company Groupon apparently took a step too far.

In case you missed last night’s big game, here’s what happened: Groupon’s ad, for which the two-year-old company paid $3 million to air, opens with shots of the beautiful landscape of Tibet — a county that has suffered under the heavy hand of communist China since 1951.

“The Tibetan people are in trouble,” says actor Timothy Hutton in a voiceover. “Their very culture is in jeopardy.”

And then it all goes to hell.

“But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!” says Hutton, now sitting comfortably in a restaurant.

From here, he segues into why Groupon is so great: Members of Groupon saved a life-changing $15 on dinner at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago! Yes, 15 whole dollars! Hurray!

Watch the ad:

By using the troubles of the Tibetan people to advertise its services, Groupon managed to infuriate, well, everyone. Seconds after the spot aired, Twitter erupted with posts of outrage about the commercial. And the hate-fest has only increased this morning, with outlets like Forbes reporting that both Chinese and Tibetan activists were outraged by the ad. (The Chinese didn’t like the fact that the commercial declared the Tibetan people “in trouble” — a fact they vehemently dispute; and, obviously, Tibetans don’t like it because their plight has been cheapened by becoming the set up for a $15 coupon.)

Despite all the righteous indignation, however, Groupon has defended (or at least explained) the commercial on the company blog:

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”)?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.

Additionally, Groupon has set up a website, SaveTheMoney.org, where people can see additional ads, and donate money to four “featured charities” — Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, buildOn, and the Tibet Fund. Groupon says it will match any donations contributed through their site up to $100,000.

We know it’s hard enough to get your idea across to millions of people in only 30 seconds. But perhaps Groupon would have been wise to include some of these facts in the ad, too. Just an idea…