We should look at Groupon's Tibet ad not just in terms of sensitivity in advertising but in terms of what five hundred years of colonialism have done to us and to our ability to tell a simple story about our world and its people. We may have developed sophisticated means of communication which take our messages instantly to hundreds of millions of people around the world. We may have even developed some sensitivity to the diversity of the world, and the need for our media messages to respect that. But we haven't obviously learned one thing. We are still talking at, around, and right through other people, as if they weren't really there, as if they weren't people at all.
That is what happened when the first colonizers landed on the shores of what are now the Americas. And that is what continues to happen, even if in subtle ways, in the wonderful, post-colonial, free and egalitarian world we live in today. It may be true that most of the people who create the media messages we see today are talented, creative professionals, often hard-put to balance their own ideals and dreams with the real-world demands of the industry they work in. It may also be true that sometimes shock and outrage are necessary to capture attention, and there may even be some allowance one could give to Groupon's stand that it has always stood for noble causes and is making matching donations to offended/exploited causes anyway. But what is inexcusable is the fact that decades after colonialism officially ended our media culture tells its stories largely the same way -- by reducing its representation of people of other nationalities and races to mere objects, bereft of voice, feeling, and will.
In his brilliant study, The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov describes the precise ways in which Christopher Columbus's writings reduce the people he encounters to objects of his fears and fantasies. The first thing he notices about them is their physical appearance, their nakedness, and of course, their complexion. He fails to notice much else, like their language, their religion, their society, the whole world of meaning in which they live. In time, he fails to notice their pain as they are tortured and slaughtered. That, of course, also means that he has failed to notice his own degradation as a human being who is capable of acting like one.
Today, the vast explosion of media has created a mini-Columbian communication problem of its own. The world as it is depicted in the media comes at us in a rush of images of people and places with little context or bearing. It is therefore very important for the creators of media messages, especially messages like Superbowl ads which are destined and paid for to be watched by millions of people, to be not merely sensitive to offenses (or savvy/cynical to ride out the offense through apologies or philanthropy accordingly), but to make a creative effort to represent "others" as something more than objects of amusement or pity.
The Groupon ad, like many other commercials before that have used people of other nationalities, races, and religions as exotic objects, could have been more imaginative and less crudely one-sided on that count. If the goal of the ad was to shock our sense of first-world complacency, it should have been done without reproducing the same old objectifying strategies. Instead, all that we see is a string of images hung out to display a narrative that is largely inside of one's own head and is almost entirely about one's own self, even when it is seemingly speaking about someone else. Tibet and Tibetans, it appears, are there in this ad only to illustrate a soliloquy, and a shallow one at that. The jarring change of tone, the accusation of trivializing a serious issue, the defenses and debates, all of these should be seen in the light of this one absence. Why did the Tibetan not speak in this ad at all? And not in some phony expected sort of voice or accent or manner as the industry seems to think audiences want, but in a voice that added humanity to the whole story. I asked my students in my global media class if there might have been a better way to have done this ad, and one view was that "anything would have been better." Even if we grant that that the ad has by its very outrageousness sparked timely debate about an important issue, it does not reduce the need for the media to reexamine its creative conventions. The world has changed since man colonized man by ignoring his voice. Shouldn't our mass media culture catch up too? I wonder how this ad would have looked had the narrator been the silent, objectified, talked-about one, for a change! Maybe that would have been more creative, subversive, and indeed post-colonial.