Here We Go Again! The Groupon Super Bowl Commercial: No, Not Unethical

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!

6 thoughts on “Here We Go Again! The Groupon Super Bowl Commercial: No, Not Unethical

  1. As usual, there will always be ethics “Nazis” just as there are environmental “Nazis,” “femiNazis,” other defenders of the politically correct, and so many other flavors of “Nazis.” These people in my book are usually full of self-righteousness, and ought to spend their time, first of all, cleaning up their OWN act, but beyond that, instead worrying about the REAL Nazis: the promoters of corporate fascism, big bank economic fascism, collectivism, promoters of government dependency, the globalist elite and other entities and institutions that are the REAL root cause of our imminent loss of liberty, freedom, and everything that our United States was founded upon.

    • 1) I’m glad to hear from you..you had me worried.
      2) Apparantly using “Nazis” gets you filtered out by the anti-spam program. Is there really rampant Nazi spam? That’s not good, either.

  2. There are certain groups that love to suck all the joy out of the world. They are the overly serious activists. Their stock line of reasoning is “How dare you be happy, don’t you know there are people starving in “. They gain a feeling of self-worth and moral superiority for caring about a cause and get joy by portraying others as uncaring. The logical conclusion of their worldview is that everyone should be miserable as long as one person is miserable. No one can be happy until all are happy. These people should be ignored. We need a word for these people so when they complain, we can just say “Oh, that’s just ” and get on with our lives.

  3. Except, of course, that they don’t. Tibet is one of the most landlocked areas in the world and has no ready access to marine food resources. There are some freshwater fish in the rivers, but they are not part of the traditional diet (although fishing has become an export and recreation industry in some areas over the past several years). You’d have to be careful, too, because a large number of the fish accumulate toxins over the summer and fall that makes it dangerous to eat them during that period.

    I hear they make a mean gnu hash in Colorado, however.

  4. What about the homeAway ad? The CEO:

    “We’ve concluded that despite our best intentions and efforts, the image of the test baby doll is too hurtful for us not to take action. We have decided to remove the versions of the ad that depict the doll getting smushed, smashed, or dropped from our website. We’ll cut a new version of the ad showing the test baby doll being safely caught and unharmed, and still allow people to have fun customizing the ad (on HomeAway’s website) with their faces or vacation rental properties. We have also changed our planned online campaign and will remove all creative showing the doll, and will replace those online ads with other creative executions. And, of course, we will not be airing the ‘test baby’ ad again on television.”

    Are you kidding me? Seeing a doll (marked as such) hit a plexiglass windows is “too hurtful”? Have any of these people seen what kids do to baby dolls?

    “We do not believe the ad will result in an increase in violence towards babies, just as last year’s Super Bowl ad featuring Betty White didn’t lead to an increase in elderly women being tackled in parks. However, we feel we made a mistake in judgment, and for that all of us at HomeAway are truly sorry. We failed to understand the reality that every day some families live with the consequences of accidents, and even violence that have caused their child a brain injury.”

    He clearly knows this was not wrong, but is capitulating anyway. What mistake in judgment did they make, other than expecting the population to be sane? What are they “truly sorry” about? While played for laughs, the baby hitting the window was presented as a bad thing.

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