A Groupon Superbowl TV commercial opens with rich images of ancient culture and tradition... on the West Bank. We see the sun rising over a minaret, punctuated by calls for morning prayer. Cut to a quick glimpse of a famed religious site -- the Cave of the Patriarchs, perhaps? We then see a man walking towards us, wearing traditional robes and headdress, as a voice-over mentions the 'plight of the Palestinian people.' Then, the camera pulls back, and we see the man is actually walking towards a table in a stylish, richly appointed dining room, carrying a plate of chumus, tehina, eggplant salad, pita, and steaming meat skewers -- just as a (famous) diner speaks of the great Groupon he and his friends got for that Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago.
If this had been the Groupon commercial at the Superbowl, instead of the nearly identical one referencing Tibet, I expect it would have totally pre-empted reporting on the revolution in Egypt on every news channel -- online and offline, print and broadcast. Just imagine the potential outcry from the Arab street regarding the callous and gratuitous reference to the Palestinian struggle by an American discounter, and the outcry from the Jewish street (in the US, around the world, and inside Israel) at the implied criticism of Israel's policies.
But, last night, it was really only Tibet... only Tibet?
For those who missed the actual spot (now available all over the web), it will forever stand as an icon of advertising -- one whose creators, no doubt, thought would be breakthrough in terms of 'buzz' and 'disruption,' but which ultimately is nothing more than culturally-myopic, tactless, and offensive. The decision to air this spot was also breathtakingly naïve of Groupon's management and, even more so, of their agency. Together, they managed to accomplish surround-sound insult: belittling the cause and struggle of the Tibetan people while, at the same time, lobbing an implied, but unmistakable criticism at China for what is arguably that country's most sensitive regional, ethnic and human rights issue. Hm... didn't I read in late January that Groupon was 'confident' about expansion in China? On that front, let's hope they have not now coined a new cliché: "What a difference one Superbowl makes!"
But let's face it. We can, and should, all be offended here. Just take your own group, your own cause, and substitute it in. I use Groupon and I'm not Tibetan, but this kind of humor at another ethnic group's expense rubs me the wrong way, makes me less impressed and, quite possibly, less loyal to the service.
Cultural insensitivity has no place in great advertising. Rather, it is cultural sensitivity that often defines great advertising.
Follow Saul Gitlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChinaSaul