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Jennifer Wu/MEDILL

The Groupon deal at Himalayan Restaurant & Bar ran back in October and can still be redeemed.

Groupon fumbles with its Tibet Super Bowl commercial

by Jennifer J. Wu
Feb 08, 2011

Kellogg students review Super Bowl ads

Marketing students made judgments based on a strategic framework with six dimensions: attention, distinction, positioning, linkage, amplification and net equity.

Distinguishing the review from most assessments, which rank spots in terms of popularity, e.g. USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter, Kellogg attempts to judge ads' effectiveness.

“It’s not just [about] ‘is it funny, are we laughing at the end of it? It’s ‘do we think this is actually going to connect the right consumers and potentially move the product and build affinity for the brand?’” 

 -- Leslie Wade, 28

Ranking highest was Volkswagen, which ran two spots called "Beetle" and “Star Wars.” Volkswagen edged out Chrysler, Doritos, E-Trade, Mini Cooper and Bridgestone – the other advertisers that earned an A from the 40 participating Kellogg students.

Groupon Inc.’s Tibet-themed advertisement during the Super Bowl has sparked a heated debate among Tibet supporters and others about its appropriateness.

The $3 million ad featured opening scenes in Tibet with actor Timothy Hutton stating, “The people in Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy.” Then he touts “their amazing fish curry,” which he is enjoying at a 50 percent discount at a Chicago area restaurant, thanks to a Groupon deal.

It is “offensive,” blogged Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston. “Many people on the Kellogg panel thought the ad was in poor taste,” he said, referring to a student group that assessed the Super Bowl ads Sunday.

Human rights groups also have added their voices to the maelstrom of criticism.

“It could be argued the advert has helped raise the profile of what is happening in Tibet, after all awareness is the first step to accountability,” Free Tibet, a U.K.-based non-profit organization, stated on its website Tuesday. “But it does put Tibetans and their suffering at the heart of the joke and when it’s used for commercial purposes that is exploitative.”

In an interview Tuesday, Derek Rucker, associate professor of marketing at Kellogg, said it’s hard to gauge how much damage Groupon has done to its business.

“This is a textbook example of poor amplification. That is, consumers’ own responses are negative to the execution, which is something to be avoided.”

Rucker explained that the commercial’s lead-in grabbed people’s attention well but then generated “negative thoughts about the message… not a good combination!”

Vivek Kunwar, co-owner of the portrayed dining spot, Himalayan Restaurant in Niles, said it had agreed to do the spot to support the Tibetan region and culture.

“The advertisement was a surprise – we saw it for the first time along with everyone else.”

He called it “edgy” and said he could understand the controversy, but defended Groupon, saying the spot’s “whole theme was for a right cause and right direction.”

Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason responded by blog late Monday that the intent was to “bring more funding and support” to social causes highlighted in this year’s Super Bowl ads. The Tibet Fund, in this case, is a New York-based organization with the mission of preserving the national and cultural identity of Tibet’s people. Mason said Groupon is raising money for the group through a website,

The high-altitude Himalayan plateau has been a hub of recurring political strife since the People’s Republic of China occupied it in 1951. In recent years, the Chinese have maintained their rule and suppressed any movement for independence or expanded human rights.

Groupon, which advertised on the Super Bowl for the first time this year, disappointed the Kellogg Super Bowl Review students, who gave it a C grade.

“My feeling is this was because while the spot was attention-grabbing, the content may have generated a negative reaction,” said Leslie Wade, 28. “It just didn’t feel quite right to trivialize the people of Tibet. I had the same initial reaction as my political-correctness radar went up.”

Classmate Elizabeth Crocker, 27, added that the panel thought the “dark humor did not reflect favorably on the brand.”

Professor Rucker also emphasized the importance of the nature of humor. Good humor that “draws your attention to the brand” and “creates a favorable response” is desirable, he said, but, “Humor can be bad… An ad can be really funny, but if it has nothing to do with the brand, then it’s a lost cause.”

In terms of return on investment, he commented, “You’re paying for publicity going into and out of the event… $3 million is an entry fee into a lot of different media opportunities.”

So what does Groupon need to do now?

There is not much Groupon can do at the moment, say marketing experts.

The company cannot “unring the bell,” said Christie Nordhielm, clinical professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan. “They placed the bet [when they ran that spot] – that’s what happens in marketing.”

What Groupon has done is created a lot of awareness, Nordhielm added. As a marketing consultant, she said it is too early too say whether the publicity will actually hurt their business.

“Groupon needs to do the math. How many people have they upset? How many customers and how many potential customers?”