The Common Good

Groupon's Controversial Social Critique

1100208-groupontibetI admit, I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. Yes, it's crass and consumerist, but seeing how marketers decide to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to manipulate me each year holds some sort of strange appeal (twisted as it may be). One could say that it's entertainment at its finest.

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The buzz after the big game usually revolves around the commercials -- the best and worst of the night, so to speak. This year all of us Gen Xers were amused and reminded of our own childhoods by Volkswagen's "force" using kid. And the nation was stirred to sentimental working class patriotism by Chrysler's homage to Detroit (as they sold a luxury car no working-class family could ever afford). But the award for "Most Controversial" went to Groupon's satirical public service announcements turned coupon selling spot.

Three ads were aired which turned the celebrity charity spokesperson shtick on its head, but it is the Tibet one that has our country all in a dither. The commercial starts out portraying the people of Tibet and alludes to the cultural oppression they are facing, it then switches to a celebrity spokesperson explaining how he was able to save money at a Tibetan restaurant by purchasing a Groupon coupon. As the Groupon blog explains:

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. 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")?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.

But apparently most of America didn't quite understand the joke. The Groupon blog is full of comments from offended viewers, and Twitter and Facebook are full of posts asking people to boycott Groupon for the offensive commercials. The general response is "I'm offended that Groupon used the suffering of the people of Tibet as a way to sell coupons."

But as I see it, most people are simply missing the point. Granted, the Super Bowl is a time when people expect to be entertained by ads, not forced to interpret social commentary. But the erudite and self-deprecatory style of mockumentary director Christopher Guest is exactly what they were given with the ad. Groupon took the basic style of American celebrity charity and showed it as the selfish act that it generally is. Charity in America is unfortunately often not an act of selfless compassion, but instead is a way for people to feel good about themselves or gain something in the act. We don't just give money to charities; we hold expensive galas and silent auctions that reward us for our act. Politicians and celebrities earn brownie points for telling the world how much they give. Charity, for many Americans, always is an act of self-aggrandizement at the expense of suffering people.

And Groupon called us (and themselves) out on that blatant hypocrisy. In my book, it was a brilliantly done harsh critique of American culture. And America missed the point. People who would generally care less about Tibet, or who would have been offended if a political/leftist/socialist "Free Tibet" ad had been aired, are now acting all offended on behalf of Tibet. Groupon showed us that the people we should be offended at are ourselves, but that was not a criticism people were ready to hear as they stared at the screen mumbling, "Here we are now, entertain us."

I get that Groupon, like any other business, is out to make a profit. I don't ascribe anything near to pure motives to them in this whole controversy. They are making donations to the very causes they portrayed in their satirical ads, and at the same time are making money from those ads by selling coupons. I don't know if their whole purpose was the controversy. As with the commercial itself, the motives involved seemed to be a multi-layered mix of commercialism, commentary, and controversy.

I can't tell people what they should or should not be offended by, but I do think it is worth pausing a moment to consider the message of the Groupon ads. Why do we give to charity? Do we support causes for the sake of the cause or for our own sake? What are we more passionate about -- helping others or helping ourselves?

portrait-julie-clawsonJulie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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