There are a few concepts I'd like to touch on to assure we have the same vocabulary going into this discussion.
1. There is a linguistic and conceptual conflation in our culture between Good-Desirable and Good-Meritorious. Ice cream is the former, charity is the latter.
2. There are acts which are moral (charity), acts which are immoral (murder) and acts which are morally neutral (a touchdown).
3. I'd like to potentially misuse the concept of the 'signifier' in the following way: when I say that something 'signifies' a concept, I mean that its first and primary resonance for the observer is not the thing itself, but the concept. What I mean is - when an American hears 'Tibet' in this context, what is signified is not the geographical area in its particulars, but the concept of charitable fundraising.
Ok let's get into this.
The first thing I would like to aggressively dismiss is this notion which is perennially thrown around that some things 'cannot be joked about.' Comedy is another way to speak about the world; some jokes are good and some jokes are bad - certainly some jokes are tasteless (depending on context and audience) - but to say that there are things in the world about which one MAY NOT JOKE is incoherent. It's like saying that there's something about which we cannot ask questions, or about which our voices may not be raised above a whisper. It's crippling and it's terrible; throw it out.
Jokes ARE about suffering. They ARE about what is 'wrong' with humanity. It has been ever thus, and must be.
Now, immediately, we're all thinking about exceptions. We're all thinking about the Holocaust. Certainly, I heard plenty of alternative commercials proposed (something about the Superbowl ads really encouraged parallel suggestions) featuring Holocaust references advertising bagel joints. I agree that these aren't funny - why?
Because: 'The Holocaust' is just as emptied of immediate genuine significance as 'Tibet' is for modern Americans, but rather than 'charitable giving,' it has been filled with the signification: 'abomination.' It's not a horrible thing; it's The Horrible Thing. The-most-serious-awful-thing placeholder. Consequently, jokes which use the Holocaust that way can be funny, but trying to slot them in for Tibet or "the rainforest" won't work at all.
This brings us to the subjects of these commercials in particular. 'Tibet,' 'the rainforest,' and 'the whales.' They signify charitable fundraising; we understand them as such. Is it distasteful to empty them of their genuine, specific tragedy and instead take advantage of the role they play in America's dialogue with itself? Mm, maybe. I can understand that. But the fact is, they have been so emptied, and Groupon's ads did nothing but take advantage of that fact. Using them as interchangeable signifiers is nothing new - genuine charitable appeals have glossed over the troublesome realities of referring to all rain forests as 'the rainforest' and assuring they they were 'saving' them for decades.
Of course, it's easier to say that it doesn't matter whether we're dismissing and 'disrespecting' climate zones and sea mammals. It's harder to reconcile 'disrespect' to actual people. This is why there was so much more anger about the Tibet ad than the others.
But, of course, the reality of the situation is quite the opposite of the concern expressed by those worried about disrespect. We routinely joke about the most respected figures (politicians, priests, etc) BECAUSE they are in positions of respect. People who 'cannot be joked about' are not more respected. It's an insult to them to worry that they can't take it.
But, moreover - Tibet has more important things to worry about than the respect of an internet deal company. When we say 'you can't joke about those people,' is anyone honestly imagining that a Tibetan person will hear that they were the butt of a joke and got their feelings hurt? I assert no. It's just a vague feeling of discomfort with the subject matter.
This vague anxiety springs from the looming recognition of our own immorality, and the confusing form of the joke itself. We expect commercials to be unsurprising and reassuring - to solidify the conflation of Desirable and Meritorious into Good. Saving money is Good - and to challenge what that means makes people uncomfortable. The Groupon ads starkly showcased the fact that saving money is not meritorious - it's just desirable.
We see something which looks like an appeal to our virtue. Then, suddenly, it shifts to an appeal to our greed. We are made to realize that satisfying greed is not virtue. Almost every other commercial is unwilling to point that out. Most ads don't explore the way in which saving money, or looking thin, or smelling nice, are inherently selfish motives. They are simply goods, and we all want what is good - though in this case, it is only good FOR US. Advertising is amoral, and the Groupon ads made sure you knew that.
The problem - if there was a problem - was that Groupon "justified" their strategy by also making the ads a sincere opportunity for charity. They offered to match any donation to the causes featured as Causes. It's as though Groupon picked the three most empty charitable signifiers and said 'hey, if we can use the way Whale and Tibet rings in the American ear, we'll give you some real money.' At issue iis the public knowledge of Superbowl advertising costs. The million-dollar-plus price tag is common knowledge - it's part of the conversation. Given that, to offer the opportunity for charitable giving to the audience - rather than giving a comparable amount of money to the causes Groupon coopted - feels like the cheapest available option to deflect criticism. Again - this is amoral. No harm is being done. Bit this move, admittedly, seems insincere.
It has been pointed out elsewhere (and in a much timelier fashion) that it is bizarre to criticize these Groupon ads while tolerating the uninterrupted stream of sexist, consumerist images which flows through the rest of the Big Game. I certainly agree. What interests me is the way in which the Groupon ads played with confronting the amorality of the stream around them, and would up really upsetting people in the process.