Of Super Bowl, Tibetan Culture and a Fish Curry

On Monday, February 7, 2011, in General Commentary, by Bhuchung K. Tsering

My son drew my attention to the commercial with the Tibet reference that was played during the Super Bowl broadcast on February 6, 2011. My immediate reaction was that it was strong and what an exposure, as the game was reportedly watched by 106.5 million people.

First a recap of what the commercial was about. It starred American actor Timothy Hutton and began with visuals of snow mountain and the Potala as Hutton is saying, “The people of Tibet are in trouble…” The commercial, however, ends with Hutton pointing out that although that may be happening in Tibet the Tibetans make “amazing fish curry” referring to a “Himalayan Restaurant” in Chicago.

After re-watching it this morning and after reading the different comments, I have formulated my own views on the issue.

The commercial was effective in drawing attention to the fact that the situation in Tibet is of grave concern and that “their very culture is in jeopardy.” It was also a strong reflection of how the American people feel about the fate of the Tibetan people, and this message is certainly received by the Chinese.

The juxtaposition of this somber aspect of the Tibetan issue with Tibetan ability to make “amazing fish curry” in a way trivializes the experience of the Tibetan people. It is for this reason that I see quite some Tibetans and friends of Tibet being upset with this commercial. My hunch is that Groupon may have wanted to exploit this very “controversial” aspect of the juxtaposition to draw attention to their coupons deals. For the record, Tibetans are not known for fish curries and the Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago is actually run by Nepalese and Indians, and thus not Tibetan.

It is also interesting to see that some Chinese are not happy with this commercial. The commercial only concerns Tibetan culture. Although the message is strong it is not something that cannot have a space in public discussions in today’s China. In recent times Chinese people have been discussing the possible fate of the Cantonese language in light of some assertions by officials, or the survival of one ethnic group or another. Even Chinese should be concerned if Tibetan culture is in jeopardy. Visually, and in the absence of a narration, this commercial looks like a Chinese propaganda piece, what with the snow mountain, the Potala Palace and dancing girls in ethnic dresses. The only reason for the Chinese anger that I can think of is the guilty conscience of what has been done to Tibet.

The commercial wasn’t ideal and it may be seen as tacky, but for a Super Bowl broadcast, the mother of all sports (at least in the United States), if some deviation is taken for putting the spotlight on the plight of the Tibetan people it is something that I can live with.

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13 Responses to “Of Super Bowl, Tibetan Culture and a Fish Curry”

  1. These The Young Turks are often dead on their political commentary. The Young Turks remain as a informatave view. I pray The Young Turks will continue be corageous enough to tell it like it is and oppose the GOP sponsored Fox Network propaganda.

  2. francklazare says:

    I sure hope that Groupon will make a substantial donation to ICT and SFT and other tibetan organizations. That would be the right thing for them to do: after all they are using the tibetan suffering issue to increase their profits. It’s only fair that they redistribute some of that profit to the causes they ‘exploit’. If not, I suggest that the tibetan organizations start a boycott of Groupon. Sorry, but just ‘generating talk’ about the tibetan issue should not be enough to condone an exploitative campaign. Show us the money!

  3. Rich Conti says:

    The ad is awful. It totally cheapens and insults the struggles of the Tibetan people and their long history and culture. Somebody should be fired. I used to like Tim Hutton. It appears he didn’t have sense enough to refuse to do such an insensitive commercial.

  4. Don says:

    Is that a Buddha seated in front of the salad bar? I haven’t seen the video, but I’d say THAT is what is most offensive here. In Germany they sell Buddhas in carpet stores as a kind of furniture. Wrong on so many levels. The message is Get Buddhas and nice carpets and join the comfort caste. Be safe and peaceful in your home.

    Did you see what the Young Turks say?

    http://tinyurl.com/5t24xc4

    I think it’s clear the ad is exploitative in the sense that they want to make use of popular consciousness of the Tibet issue to promote their coupon business. You can be a consumer, use their coupons to satisfy your personal cravings, and at the same time feel good about doing something good for other people. (You know the drill: Save the rain forest. Buy our gasoline.) This aim — and I think this was their aim — falls flat as far as I am concerned.

  5. Kalsang D says:

    Aside from the fact that Groupon didn’t get it right about whether Tibetans did or didn’t make fish curry which is quite irrelevant since the ad is referring to excellent food and good deals (also note! that Tibetans now in Tibet and in exile do eat fish and make fish curry at home even though they may not serve in a “proper”? Tibetan restaurant. Getting to the point, Groupon has been brave enough to go ahead with such a political act speaking up for justice infront of millions of audience. Yes controversies can get you noticed but what type of controversial subject did Groupon chose to do. We should be thanking Groupon for taking it up even though they needed to get into Chinese market. The Chinese people in China who are ignorant of the Tibet Issue may get disgruntled however how do you educate people about the 60 years of injustice that continue to this minute. We must not worry about frills when we get a full garment after being stranded naked. So kudos to Groupon just for being brave enough to point it out to the Chinese or whoever who doesn’t get it! So let’s not talk about how Groupon went wrong where rather let’s pick up the thread and work towards weaving a carpet of Freedom and Justice. So long!

  6. gyatso says:

    As a Tibetan, I welcome both the ad and the controversy that is surrounding it even today, three days after the Super Bowl. You can’t buy this sort of Press and awareness, not even for $3 million, the cost of airtime for this 30 second spot. The shrill and sometimes whiny complaints to the ad may have their origins in three possible reasons- firstly, many people seem to be offended by the sheer bad taste of the commercial. Personally I just don’t understand why one’s expectations for refined good taste in a Super Bowl commercial would be set anywhere higher than 6 out of 10, the number of beers in a pack. Secondly, some seem genuinely offended that Tibet’s difficult situation was exploited by Groupon. Well perhaps that’s true to an extent, but the ad has created a level of awareness far beyond the limited Tibet supporter circle to what’s happening in Tibet. And quite frankly, while we may not say so, we are not blind to the many ‘friends’ who run various business enterprises and put out merchandises that come uncomfortably close to exploiting Tibet and Tibetans with very little return to the Tibetan cause.
    And lastly, there may have been some people who were just caught off guard by the ad, and felt consciously or unconsciously hurt and annoyed that their time of near sacred pleasure and enjoyment was ruined by the harsh light of political strife in Tibet. Well, that’s perhaps understandable, but that’s not what you’re complaining about, is it?

  7. Mongcon says:

    No one seems to have asked or answered the important question. Did Groupon show the ad to Tibet Fund and get their approval? If they did, then it’s quite a different deal. If they didn’t then they have clearly taken advantage of Tibet Fund and should be ashamed.

  8. Bhuchung la gently articulates why he “can live with it” but I would have to say that the majority of viewers who took the time to comment were quite appalled. I place below a piece that I just wrote entitled, “Groupon Fails To Curry Favor With Americans, Tibetans or Chinese”.

    Americans know the Chinese government is destroying Tibetan culture. And the American public likes a good deal when it comes to dining out.

    Yesterday, during the Super Bowl, the online coupon dealer Groupon ran an advertisement stating exactly that.

    Why did Groupon pay 3 million dollars to run a thirty second ad that combines the suffering in Tibet with a cheap meal?

    First, if you were not one of the 112 million folks who were watching the Super Bowl and the ad, check it out above or on youtube.

    The cultural misrepresentations are obvious—Tibetans traditionally do not eat fish; curry is a dish from the Indian subcontinent; and Nepalese and Indians, not Tibetans, run the Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago. But this is a diversion.

    The answer to why Groupon would run the ad is obvious. Tibet, even the repression of its population of 6 million, has cache so why not make a buck off of it?

    The reaction online in the last 24 hours to Groupon’s ad has been overwhelmingly negative. A wide spectrum of news wires, blogs and commentators have reported how the viewing public thought the ad was ill advised at best. “Offensive” is one of the most commonly used descriptions on Twitter and blogs, and rightly so. This is not to say that some did not see the ad as satire. And, undoubtedly the ad and cyber-uproar since has generated traffic to Groupon’s website, as evidenced by one HuffPost commentator who noted, “the controversy made me go to their website and sign up for some sweet deals.”

    Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason felt a need to respond today to the criticism but not to apologize. Quite the contrary. He blogged in his company’s defense that they “would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the cause…” concluding, “We took this approach knowing that, if anything, they would bring more funding and support to the highlighted causes.”

    It is intriguing to note that Chinese nationalists in Beijing took offense to the ad as well because they perceived it as supporting the Tibetan cause. The Chinese government’s discomfort with the Groupon ad demonstrates once again the lack of legitimacy they have with the occupation of Tibet.

    Groupon does engage in corporate philanthropy by supporting the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the New York based Tibet Fund, which the fish curry ad was intended to benefit. One of the errors in Groupon’s ad, apart from the basic moral miscalculation of using the Tibetan people’s suffering to sell meal coupons, was how they did not include in the ad their philanthropic website, savethemoney.org. Yet, even if they had stated some of their profits benefit Tibetan organizations, there is little doubt the ad would not have tarnished Groupon’s image.

    Groupon’s attempt to broadcast their commitment to corporate social responsibility was indeed a bad curry of messages that was not to anyone’s taste.

    http://www.matteopistono.com/blog.htm?post=771158

  9. Phillip says:

    There goes Groupon’s aspirations for the China market.

  10. Bryan says:

    Forget about the controversial aspect of this ad for a second. Maybe this should serve as inspiration for the ICT and supporters of the Tibetan cause. Why not start a fund now on this sight where people can donate money for the express purpose of sponsoring a superbowl commercial next year that truly sheds light on the Tibetans plight.
    You could post the needed finacial goal on the site and people could track our progress. If Tebow’s charity could drum up enough money for their anti-abortion commercial last year there is no reason this can’t be done.
    Make it happen!

  11. Kelly Casey says:

    So many better ways to bring attention to the struggle for independence and viability as a culture than to take advantage of the situation to make some money. Kinda like when you go to Tibet the locals have been replaced with Chinese actors. Everyone’s making a profit off of suffering. May all beings realize the oneness of interbeing.

  12. Even Negative advertising is attention getting,and therefore can bring about positive dialogue.

  13. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Int. Campaign Tibet, Shawn. Shawn said: RT @SaveTibetOrg: #Tibet: #Groupon: … Of Super Bowl, Tibetan Culture and a Fish Curry … http://tinyurl.com/4dy532c [...]

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