WASHINGTON — Internet start-up Groupon was on the defensive Monday as it faced outrage for running a Super Bowl advertisement that highlighted Tibet's woes to promote the online bargain site.

The commercial during Sunday evening's game, the most-watched time of the year on US television, opens with mountain scenes set to a melancholy flute and the words, "The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their culture is in jeopardy."

Actor Timothy Hutton then quips, "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry," and explains how he used Groupon for a discount at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago.

The advertisement set off furious messages on Twitter.

"Groupon's Tibet commercial was so appalling it made me cancel their daily email; it turned a vague dislike into enmity," Tad Friend, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, wrote on the micro-blogging service.

Musician Paco Mahone of Pittsburgh tweeted: "Glad I never heard of Groupon and glad I will never use them after that horrible Super Bowl commercial."

An unscientific poll on The Huffington Post, a left-leaning news site, found that some 45 percent of viewers found the advertisement "completely inappropriate" and many more were somewhat taken aback.

Rohit Bhargava, who blogs about marketing, tweeted: "Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3 (million) to lose customers who previously loved them."

Groupon, a Chicago-based company that has grown rapidly since its inception in 2008, acknowledged a "peculiar taste in humor" but said it in fact supported Tibetan causes.

Groupon said it was matching donations of up to $100,000 to three charities including the Tibet Fund, which supports jobs for Tibetan refugees.

Explaining the joke, the company said that its founders started in the world of philanthropy but have "ended up selling coupons."

"We loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause," the company said in a blog post.

Incidentally, despite the fish curry reference, Tibetans are not known for eating seafood as the Himalayan territory is far from the sea.

The Groupon advertisement came just days after fashion designer Kenneth Cole got a harsh dressing down for posting a message on Twitter that played on the turmoil in Egypt to promote his latest fashion line.

Cole later apologized for his "insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt."