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Groupon, Tibet and the Super Bowl

As we at First Peoples Worldwide will not be the first to observe (that distinction belongs to Slate), America has become a country where the long-familiar distinction between the haves and have-nots has been complicated by the high profile of the “have everythings.” Their example, glorified around the clock by world media even in the midst of the worst economic recession in 80 years, is eroding much of our received wisdom about American democracy. Our foundational commitment to a “commonwealth” seems to be giving way to an “I got mine” attitude on every front.

So it’s a question well worth asking: What do Americans, as the world’s wealthiest collective culture, really think about desperately poor people under the heel of genocidal regimes?

On the evidence of digital discount giant Groupon’s commercial on Tibet during the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, we find them entertaining. The commercial began with sympathetic images of Tibetans in traditional headwear. We hear tell of their “trouble,” and that is the early warning: trouble is no word to describe the murder and cultural disruption visited on perhaps a million Tibetans during 50 years of targeted genocide by the Chinese state.

Obviously then, much worse is in store. It comes in the form of actor Timothy Hutton, seated at a restaurant table amid wait-staff Tibetans: “Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” Hutton can enjoy it at a discount thanks to a Groupon digital coupon deal. The 2011 Super Bowl drew more than 100 million viewers, the largest audience ever for American television.

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Speaking of American wealth, Chicago-based Groupon recently turned down a billion-dollar purchase offer, and plans a hundred-billion-dollar stock issue this year. With so much at stake, all of their resources went into damage-control mode as word of their advertising travesty traveled fast on the Internet. CEO Andrew Mason tried to explain it away as a “spoof” of celebrity endorsements. But surely he knows that advertisements are not summed up by the reaction of their creators and financiers. Public reaction is the litmus test of advertisements.

In fairness, Groupon didn’t set out to demean Tibetans. In their money-padded insularity, creative indulgence and blindness to a brown-skinned culture, they managed to “spoof” their own social concern and caring network. And so the spoof extends to Groupon customers and prosperous Americans generally.

Mason only extended it further with a spin-doctoring announcement, post-Super Bowl, that Groupon will make amends by giving a small mountain of money to the Tibet Fund in New York. Undoubtedly recommended by its association with the Dalai Lama, who is above criticism, the Tibet Fund is not – indeed it’s the ideal receptacle for a desperate show of concern on short order. Tibetans working inside Tibet, speaking on condition of anonymity because their every word is weighed by Chinese overseers, consider the Tibet Fund well-intended. “But we wouldn’t say that they understood the implications before they signed a contract.”

Significantly, the Tibet Fund is not run by Tibetans. Tibetans consider the Groupon ad demeaning, despite those so-predictable youthful few in their own ranks who consider the exposure and donations worth the indignity. “It’s an act of desperation to be happy with a portrayal like that … the whole thing is a sad parody.”

The parody must end. First Peoples Worldwide works with local communities to advance the transition from entrenched views of Indigenous Peoples as victims, as second class citizens, to an appreciation of their permanent worth in a world that needs all the help it can get. We will connect with them only when we respect their “trouble” for the atrocity it is.
Until then, everything we have will be at risk. Is it perhaps time finally, 10 years after, for Americans to most seriously consider what it meant when the worst terrorist atrocity in our history struck us from the poorest country per capita on the planet?