Every year one Super Bowl ad sets off an “It’s offensive!” “No! It’s funny!” debate, and this time around it was the commercial for Groupon, the new service that provides short-term discounts for an eclectic variety of products. As we saw a stunning snow-covered mountain, actor Tim Hutton’s voice intoned…
“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 is in jeopardy…. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!!! And since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”
Twitter, the early warning system of our culture, immediately filled with indignant tweets, pronouncing the ad offensive. Other commentators in the media and on the web did likewise. One of my favorite ethicists in the blogosphere, Dr. Chris MacDonald, went further: he pronounced the ad unethical, writing…
“To recruit — and then trivialize — the plight of the people of Tibet to sell Groupon’s services shows a jaw-dropping level of disrespect. And while we often think of disrespect as a matter of bad manners, showing suitable respect for other humans’ basic needs.”
Was it unethical? The commercial was satire and intended as humor. The appearance of disrespect was also intentional, as could be discerned by the editing of the ad and Hutton’s sudden change of tone from documentary grave to huckster upbeat.
The joke structure is old and classic, an apparently serious reflection interrupted by a discordantly trivial observation. Anyone who watches “The Simpsons” is familiar with the technique. One of my favorite examples comes from the Neil Simon murder mystery spoof, “Murder By Death.” The corpulent Inspector Milo Perrier (a spoof of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot), who is obsessed with food, finds that his bedroom ceiling is slowly descending, about to crush him and his chauffeur:
Milo: The ceiling is coming down!
Chauffeur: What’ll we do?
Milo: I don’t know! (Pause) But this is exactly how they make goose liver pâté!
The Groupon ad, like the bit in the film, spoofed the priorities of food lovers, mocking them by emphasizing their sometimes warped values. I thought it was well-executed and funny. I also thought it was a gag better suited to a Neil Simon movie than a high-profile TV ad. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between genuine crassness and a spoof of crassness: this was the latter, but such jokes are risky. If an ad offends too many people, rightly or wrongly, it isn’t an effective ad. That still doesn’t make it unethical.
The ad is, among other things, an example of a “tree falling in the forest” offense: how many Tibetans see or care about Super Bowl commercials? Tibetan rights activists are not going to be happy, but the commercial is hardly policy commentary. It is not ging to undermine pro-Tibetan advocacy, and might even raise awareness. It says nothing negative or untrue about the nation; the perceived offense is in the ad’s intentional spoofing of the superficial American attitude that the world exists for our pleasure. Let’s see: no other ad made any mention of Tibet at all; one does, sets off discussions and arguments about the nation’s plight, and we’re condemning the commercial that sparked this as…unethical?
Groupon is promoting fundraising to help Tibet; Budweiser sure isn’t. I think the ad’s humor misfired, but I must continue to oppose the increasing efforts to make all satire impossible by over-reacting to any humor with an edge, irony, or that challenges “untouchable” topics.
A good and effective ad? Maybe not; we’ll see. An offensive ad? Obviously to some; Tibetans have more to worry about than Timothy Hutton. Unethical? No.
And they do whip up an amazing fish curry!