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Groupon’s Superbowl “Tibet” Commercial

February 26, 2011

So much has been said about Groupon’s “Tibet” Superbowl commercial and the company’s backpedaling about it that I think most people are familiar with the controversy. To many folks, the ad trivialized the suffering currently experienced by the Tibetan people; human rights violations became fodder for a commercial punchline.

What’s interesting to note is how far Groupon’s advertising agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, had to stretch–in a sense, “racebend“–in order to achieve the goal of that punchline.

In the commercial, actor Timothy Hutton says:

“Mountainous Tibet: one of the most beautiful places in the world. 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 each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago!”

According to the New York Times, the mountain shown in the “mountainous Tibet” voice over isn’t even in Tibet at all! While Tibet is “mountainous”–it is bordered by Mount Everest–the mountain depicted in the commercial is Shivling mountain, which is in India!

(The other landmark in the commercial is a Tibetan building; Portola Palace in Lhasa.)

The stretch the commercial makes in order to (attempt to) connect Tibet to “Buy a Groupon” gets even stranger when Timothy Hutton starts pitching an “amazing fish curry” at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.

The restaurant’s fish curry is apparently quite good. But it the dish is not Tibetan. (And the yellow goop in the bowl the guy brings Hutton in the commercial does not look anything like the dish served at the restaurant.)

According to Robert Barnett, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University, “Fish is rarely if ever eaten in Tibet. Curry comes from India. Fish curry does not exist in Tibetan cuisine.”

Himalayan Restaurant & Bar serves fish curry because it serves “Nepali influenced Asian/Indian fusion” food, not Tibetan food.

The commercial was not filmed at the restaurant, but on a commercial set. Although the actor seen in the commercial is seen wearing some sort of presumably “ethnic” (hopefully Tibetan) outfit, as you can see in this featurette on the actual restaurant, the waiters at Himalayan Restaurant & Bar wear white shirts and bowties. (Shocking.)

Commercials are hardly accurate or trusty representations of products being sold, but it’s interesting to see an advertising company take liberties to weave a commercial narrative about a culture it clearly knew very little about. The restaurant, the waiter, the dish–all of it was manufactured to tie back to the Groupon product! What’s so scary is that American viewers’ perceptions of Asian cuisine are so poorly formed, the advertising company felt fish curry and waiters dressed in “ethnic” clothing would feel more authentic than reality and the actual restaurant referenced.

Groupon’s inability to find an actual Tibetan restaurant to feature in it’s advertisement also indicates a lack of effort and outreach to the Tibetan American community. A quick google search yields several yummy places that specialize in Tibetan cuisine, including Tibet Nepal House in Pasadena, CA; Tibet’s Restaurant in Louisville, CO, Anyetsang’s Little Tibet Restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana and Rangzen Restaurant in Cambridge, MA.

Groupon’s commercial has managed to impart false stereotypical messages about Tibet, while raising awareness about the issue. Organizations like the International Campaign for Tibet and Students for Free Tibet hope that viewers will be driven to take action after viewing the commercial and the outrage surrounding it.

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • i know I’m very late but I must say… Hate that commercial for all those reasons, not to mention that if the people of Tibet’s culture is in jeopardy, why are you ripping restaurant workers off using Groupon and proudly proclaiming it? It seems like if you really cared, you wouldn’t take fifteen dollars away and run the risk of the restaurant closing (hypothetical situation).