Groupon Loses Users’ Goodwill for Flatfooted Super Bowl Ads

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Groupon made a splash with its Super Bowl debut last night: a trio of spots that spoofed, mildly, pro-social causes such as saving endangered whales (featuring Cuba Gooding Jr.), the Brazilian rainforests (a CGI-imposed Elizabeth Hurley) and Tibet (Timothy Hutton).

Of course, any mocking (however gentle) of good causes, and transferring “saving” an imperiled precious resource with “saving” money on goods and services via social-based group purchasing runs the risk of crossing a line — which this campaign, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, appeared to do with many viewers.

The kick-off to the brand’s Save the Money campaign was accused of being insensitive to social causes — the roots of the brand’s origins — while the spot featuring Hutton caused the biggest backlash, landing the lowest score and social sentiment on the Brand Bowl Super Bowl social media tracker.[more]

The description: “After shedding some light on Tibet’s troubles, Timothy Hutton explains how he used Groupon to get a $30 Tibetan meal for $15, and helped Save the Money.”

The resulting controversy and PR disaster comes in the wake of Kenneth Cole’s inappropriately humorous tweet as the democracy movement in Egypt was turning violent last week. YouTube commenters, meanwhile, weighed in on both sides:

Coolestmovies: “These Groupon commercials are, without a doubt, the SAVVIEST ads to air during the entire SuperBowl. These are WAY smarter than many luddites will be able to give them credit for being, at least until they dosome RESEARCH before knee-jerking their reactions based on a single viewing and NO CONTEXT! I hope to see MANY more of these! Just brilliant marketing all around.”

eveghost: “Not funny.  This whole campaign is horrendous. I’m embarrassed to be a Groupon customer. You whole ad scheme is nauseating.”

SunZoo: “Remarkable. In a 30 second spot, Groupon has managed to piss off the Free Tibet crowd, the one China crowd, AND random people who don’t give a damn about Tibet but are offended by ridiculously obvious exploitation and tasteless jokes. Well played, Groupon. And by “well played” I mean “You need to hire a different advertising firm ASAP.”

Another observer summed it up: “You guys have a fine coupon site. Probably, though, you should stay out of politics.” (What do you think? Post a comment below.)

Gawker’s take on the campaign: it’s not even funny. (Ouch.)

For Groupon’s pricey foray into television advertising during the biggest marketing event of the year, leveraging CEO Andrew Mason’s trademark off-beat humor was risky. Today, many Groupon users are threatening to cancel their subscriptions and industry buzz is it may push back their anticipated IPO — not to mention raising questions about how this mis-step will affect the brand’s health.

Mason acknowledged his (and thus the brand’s) “peculiar sense of humor” in a blog post on the Super Bowl campaign he published on the company’s blog yesterday, before the big game:

“This year, we realized that in spite of how much we’d grown, a ton of people still hadn’t heard of Groupon, so we decided to give in to our Napoleon complex and invade the rest of the world with a proper Super Bowl commercial.”

Groupon’s post continued: “Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause.”

He added, “Our peculiar taste in humor made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked. This time around, we had better luck with the ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We really admired some of the work that CP+B had done in the past, so we gave them a shot at pitching us concepts, and they came up with an idea we couldn’t resist blowing millions of dollars on.”

According to Adweek, he’s working on some sort of mea culpa that will be posted on the Groupon blog. He also told the Wall Street Journal he didn’t consider the ad to be offensive, calling it a “spoof” on the company and celebrity-endorsed public service announcements.

While Super Bowl ads are known for being outrageous and (occasionally) politically incorrect, Groupon knows it took a big chance with this approach. Perhaps anticipating a backlash, Mason’s blog post yesterday also stated the company will contribute matching donations of up to $100,000 for the three featured charities – Rainforest Action Network, buildOn, and the Tibet Fund — featured in the three spots, plus a Groupon credit of up to $100,000 for contributions made to Greenpeace.

What do you think? Did Groupon go too far? View the brand’s two other Super Bowl XLV spots below:

“After revealing the devastation of Brazilian deforestation, Elizabeth Hurley explains how she used Groupon to get 50% off a Brazilian wax, and helped Save the Money.”

“After urging someone to save the whales, Cuba Gooding Jr. explains how he used Groupon to get an $86 whale watching tour for $49, and helped Save the Money.”

Here’s Groupon’s “rejected” Super Bowl ad:

And here’s Groupon’s first commercial, inspired by watching the 2009 Super Bowl:

The description on the above spot:

“Our first commercial, made when we were a wee website in early 2009.

While watching the 2009 Super Bowl after we’d just launched Groupon, a few of us noticed how dumb most the ads were—seemingly all of them had some sort of slapstick violence…one after another, they began to appear increasingly absurd, especially because none of the people affected by the slapstick violence were hit with the actual painful consequences of real violence. Some driver would get distracted by a Slim Jim or a lady wearing Revlon and he’d crash his car, which would explode…after which the only consequence would be that he’d have ash all over his face, frayed hair, and a less than funny stunned look.

In response, we commissioned a super low budget commercial with the same premise of senseless violence, but this time with it’s shockingly realistic aftermath that violence tends to have. It is a lesson in anti-violence, and an fossil of Groupon in the earliest phase of its horrifying evolution.”

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