People not getting Tibet ad, Groupon pulls it

Faith Merino · February 11, 2011 · Short URL:

The Groupon snafu shows the widening schism between TV and Web culture

 Earlier this week, Groupon chief executive Andrew Mason took to the Groupon blog to explain the company's controversial Super Bowl ads, one of which appeared to mock the Tibetan struggle for independence. After a looong week of bombastic outrage and histrionic calls to arms, Andrew Mason announced via GrouBLOGpon that the company is pulling the Tibet ad. 

"We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted," Mason wrote on Friday.  "We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads (a few may run again tomorrow – pulling ads immediately is sometimes impossible). We will run something less polarizing instead."

The ad struck a bad chord with viewers after it aired for the first time on Super Bowl Sunday, and angry netizens immediately took to their blogs to rant about Groupon's apparent insensitivity to the real plight of the Tibetan people.  The headlines were pretty damning: "Does Groupon think their customers are mindless?" (clearly some people were so angry, they didn't want to be slowed down by correct grammar), "Groupon: Still not getting it," "Groupon benefits from Tibetan crisis," etc. etc. Keyboards were steaming by the week's end! 

To add insult to injury, the New York Times' Miguel Helft pointed out today that the mountain featured in the opening of the Tibet ad is...not in Tibet. It's in India.

"The mountain in the Groupon ad is Shivling, whose name refers to the Hindu god Shiva, and is in the Garhwal Himalaya region in the Indian state of Uttarakhand," Helft pointed out. "Here are some images of Shivling. You can see from the image that it matches the mountain in the opening shot of the Groupon ad."

I'm just going to say it and I'm not even going to try to be clever about it: Who cares?

On Thursday morning, Andrew Mason announced that the ads would be tweaked to draw viewers' attention to the real SaveTheMoney website, where they could donate to the causes to which the ads referred. But clearly, it just wasn't enough to satisfy the haters.

"We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through," wrote Mason.  "I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads."

Groupon is well known for its quirky humor, which translates seamlessly across the Web culture.  Think of startups like Cheezburger and viral YouTube videos like Double Rainbow and The Bed Intruder Song--such Web phenomenons would never translate on mainstream television.

The Groupon TV ad controversy makes it glaringly apparent that mainstream TV culture and Web culture have hit a schism. They speak two different langauges, and Groupon's unique brand of humor--while ideal for Web culture--doesn't work on TV. Which is not to say that Groupon isn't capable of producing whacky TV ads. I just think that the only way they can really do that on TV is if ithey tone themselves down. (Think about "Grouponicus"--would die-hard Fox News adherents have let that slip by without a fight?  A promotional campaign appearing to make fun of organized religion?  Not a chance.)  

The Internet is the Western Frontier--a nebulous space without rules or taboos, where sites like Groupon, Cheezburger, and YouTube can flourish. Until TV catches up (and quits being so finnicky about Web TV), the Web-to-TV crossover is going to be a bumpy ride. 

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