Everyone knows that one of the biggest draws to watching the Super Bowl is the bevy of commercials displaying the cutting-edge humor of advertising agencies and companies that you want to give your money to. While I didn’t actually watch the game yesterday, there was no way I could miss the backlash of the Groupon commercial. Here’s the script:

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 in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.

Tasteless is an understatement. When I first watched the ad on youtube, I wanted to follow my gut reaction and punch someone in the face. Mainly, Timothy Hutton or whoever was behind the inane commercial (that being Groupon, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and director Christopher Guest). Once I overcame that, I started to think about the complexities surrounding the ad. I think I understand some of the thought behind it. In one sense, it can be viewed as poking fun at possibly over-serious PSAs. I’m sure many viewers tuned out when the typical PSA-esque, charity music and tone began to play on their screen. The change in mood was incredibly effective at spurring discussion – on Tibet, on Groupon, on the sad state of humor. America is a jaded lot, or so we like to think of ourselves, and especially during our favorite pastime (oh wait, that’s baseball..) the last thing we want is to feel guilty for kicking back with a bucket of beers and an equally large tub of buffalo wings. So, I think I can see where the advertisers were coming from. However, this is beside the point. The advertisement plays with deeper issues and terrible human rights abuses as if they were as meaningless as the most recent Lindsay Lohan arrest.

First off, the situation in Tibet is a serious matter (do I really need to say this?). While the commercial began by glossing over the issues, it failed to follow through at all. Groupon does make a meager attempt, with their “Save the Money” campaign website, in which visitors can donate to the causes that Groupon threw under the bus in their commercials. However, they did not draw this connection into the advertisement. Instead, they used the problem of human rights abuses as a platform to loosely tie in a possible coupon that the viewer can use. For food. Sure, they may match your donation in the end, but how much did they spend on the commercial? Did someone say $3 million for the spot alone? Don’t trick yourself into thinking that this is progress.

Secondly, this ad is another example of cultural essentialism. In America, we are in the dominant position to take what we want from other cultures. We can practice yoga and perfect our downward dog, but ignore its roots and the impact of colonialism on India. We dress up as the “sexy Indian” for Halloween, but what about the Native Americans living on reservations? It’s a sign of our immense privilege to pick and choose from other cultures, while ignoring how we forced, and continue to force, aspects of our own culture and dominance on those who do not have the power to fight back. It’s because of these hierarchies that we can create an advertisement trivializing a people who are victims of cultural genocide, and then just as quickly devour something that they produce (fish curry, anyone?) – and at a discount!

I’m not saying you should feel guilty about ordering “ethnic” food for dinner, or that you should stop practicing yoga (dressing up as an Native American, probably). However, do your research. Understand that these opportunities we have in the US come at the expense of people around the world. You personally may not have taken their rights from them or thrown them into any sort of conflict, but you have the power to make positive change today. That advertisement made you feel uncomfortable for a reason, now do something about it.

Just for starters:
The 3rd Annual Tibet Lobby Day is on February 28th and March 1st. You can register today with Students for a Free Tibet.

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