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Super Bowl ad offends both Tibetans and Chinese

BEIJING – It was a commercial that had many folks over here scratching their heads, once they got over the initial reaction of being offended. 

Is China so difficult to understand that an American company seeking to break into the market here would get it so wrong?

Groupon’s 30-second Super Bowl ad featuring Timothy Hutton mocking the loss of Tibetan autonomy in the same breath as shilling for a cheap Tibetan meal managed to do the seemingly impossible: unite the Free Tibet crowd with China nationalists in their outrage at the commercial.

For English-language reaction, check out the comments on the YouTube site, where many people were angered by the trivialization of the Tibetan people's plight.

In Chinese over at Sina.com, many Internet users posted comments along the lines of:

“Groupon, do you really want to advance into China or what?”

Good question.

Seeking a China partner
or weeks, it’s been rumored that the Chicago-based deal-of-the-day website had teamed up with Tencent to launch a co-branded joint venture in China. Tencent is China’s biggest Internet company by market value and the provider of QQ, the mainland’s most popular free instant messaging service. (Tencent says it has 636.6 million active QQ user accounts.)

Neither company has commented on the reports, but China Daily quoted an anonymous source Monday saying the two are in a partnership and will be hiring 1,000 people within three months.

Well, maybe not so fast now.

For those of you unfamiliar with this narrative, the issue of Tibetan independence is a non-starter in China, where the government and most people believe Tibet has always been, and will always be, a part of the Chinese nation.

In the face of a growing chorus of outrage across two continents, Groupon posted an explainer for its Super Bowl ads:

“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.”

Whatever one thinks of the concept and whether the Chinese government has a sense of humour, there remains one sticking point. 

Groupon has agreed to contribute matching donations to three featured charities, one of which is the Tibet Fund.  It’s a non-governmental organization set up in the U.S. to work with Tibetan refugees and has the blessing of the Dalai Lama (a very unpopular figure in Chinese government circles), and its stance is clearly stated on its website:  “The Tibet Fund will continue to focus its efforts on strengthening the exile community, for it is here that Tibetan culture and national identity are being sustained.” 

This is how you do it, Groupon
In the meantime, the senior management over at Tencent must be wishing that they’d been consulted on the Super Bowl ad.

The Chinese Internet giant found itself in high praise over the weekend over its own TV commercial, which aired during the annual Spring Festival Gala last week.

The Gala is a variety show broadcast on CCTV that rings in the Chinese New Year and draws an estimated 700 million viewers – essentially the Chinese advertising bonanza equivalent of the Super Bowl.


The commercial, “Your Companion of 12 Years,” was posted online and went viral virtually overnight – not in China but among overseas Chinese communities, especially those in the U.S., for it tells an all too familiar story: a young Chinese man who leaves behind his family in order to live out his dream of studying and working in the U.S.

Sappy as it might appear to Americans, the Tencent ad has been hugely popular, in particular for drawing out the hankies among homesick Chinese unable to return home for the Chinese New Year holiday. (In the most recent available data, nearly 130,000 Chinese students went to the United States to study in 2009).

With additional research from Emily Ni.