Fury over Groupon's tasteless SuperBowl Tibet ad

Groupon, the online discount voucher firm, has been accused of cashing in on China's repression of the Tibetan people in an advert aired during yesterday's US SuperBowl.

The company, which enables users to get discounts on goods and services by buying en masse, screened the ad during a commercial break in Sunday's clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, which was watched by an estimated audience of 100 million.

During the half-minute advert, actor Timothy Hutton tells viewers:

"The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture in jeopardy", referring to China's repression of native culture in the Himalayan region.

Then, a suddenly more upbeat Hatton continues:

"...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."

The SuperBowl - American football's premier fixture - is one of the most widely watched television events in the world, and advertisers can pay up to $3 million for a 30-second slot.

But it seems Groupon's widely-seen advert may have disastrously backfired, with the company forced into issuing a (threadbare, we'd say) defence of the ad.

"The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it's usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals," Groupon founder Andrew Mason said in a statement.

"So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as "Save the Whales"), but then it's revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in "Save the Money")?"

Writing on his blog, US-based marketing expert Rohit Bhargava of PR firm Ogilvy award the ad the title of Worst Marketing Strategy of the night.

"Without the context of the thinking behind the ad, their 30-second spot in isolation came off as offensive, amateurish and insensitive," Bhargava said.

The discount buying firm is offering $15 of Groupon credit to people who donate $15 to the charities The Tibet Fund, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network or Build On - but the move appears unlikely to appease angry campaigners demanding a boycott of the site.