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Groupon's 'Tibet' Super Bowl Ad: Harmless Fun Or Offensive?

It didn't come even close to the top of USA TODAY's annual "Super Bowl Ad Meter," but Groupon's Save the Money - Tibet commercial appears to have won the distinction of being this year's most controversial Super Bowl spot.

Comments — and most are not kind — are flowing into Twitter quickly. A sampling:

— "Dear @Groupon - over a million Tibetans have been killed during Chinese occupation. Your ad wasn't funny."

— "Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them."

— "Hey @groupon, instead of buying from your deals, I'm going to donate to Tibet. Who's laughing now?"

For its part, Groupon says:

"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')?"

In case you missed them, Groupon aired three commercials — starring actors Cuba Gooding Jr., Elizabeth Hurley and Timothy Hutton. Each began as if the star was pitching for a cause (Gooding on saving whales, Hurley on the rain forests and Hutton on Tibet). Then they pivot to the pitch.

Here's an excerpt from Hutton's script. The ad follows:

"The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy. 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 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago."

Now, what's your view?

By the way, there was a tie at the top of USA TODAY's Ad Meter for favorite spot. Both commercials, one for Bud Light and the other for Doritos, starred dogs.

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET: In a conversation recorded for today's All Things Considered, Horizon Media senior vice president Brad Adgate told NPR's Melissa Block that "to a lot of people [the ads] needed further explanation" to make clear they were spoofs and to make the links (which Groupon does at its "Save the Money" website) to the very real advocacy groups to which the company says it will match customers' donations. He also said it might have been better to target the ads to a narrower audience, rather than broadcast them during the biggest annual TV event of the year — the Super Bowl.

That said, "perhaps if more consumers go into these websites and make donations to these organizations, then the mission is accomplished," Adgate added. "They've done what they set out to do. It was kind of a very different way of doing it, certainly. [And] maybe the brand got raked through the coals [by] Monday morning quarterbacks. But, you know, if the ends justify the means they so be it."

Here's part of Melissa's conversation with Adgate.

Melissa Block speaks with Brad Adgate

More will be on ATC later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. And we'll add the as-aired version of the conversation to this post later.

Update at 3 p.m. ET. From Beijing, NPR's Louisa Lim reports that Tibetan activists and many Chinese are both upset with the Groupon ad. "Tibet supporters say it trivializes the suffering and oppression of Tibetans under Chinese rule," she reports, "while Chinese Internet users have protested against what they call Groupon's attempts to invade the Chinese market." The restaurant's owner didn't like it either:

Louisa Lim

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Louisa Lim

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