Groupon: Clever Isn’t Clever When It Offends

Groupon Super Bowl ADs 2011

This morning it was fun to skim through some of the fallout from Super Bowl XLV. Among the popular train wrecks of discussion, Christina Aguilera’s unique rendition of the American national anthem and of course the Black Eyed Peas heavily scrutinized Tron Legacy-esque cover song-laden half time performance. Oh, brilliant work Slash—dude effectively finances his retirement with a few guitar licks and a couple minutes on stage with Fergie.

These were certainly noteworthy moments from what will no doubt go down as one of the biggest televised events of the year. Yet I’ll always remember this year’s Super Bowl broadcast not as the sporting event plagued by the usual technical glitches or vocal malfunctions, but rather the moment the world’s fastest growing company Groupon chose to debut a series of bizarre television spots, to a global audience of 111-million no less, promoting their online group discount service.

Groupon have been around for a couple years and until now have abstained from ‘big spend’ advertising in the media spotlight. Apart from a tidal wave of Web banner ADs Groupon have largely advertised their services through word-of-mouth marketing in the social media space. So what better venue than the Super Bowl, the most talked about advertising event of the year, to roll out a series of big budget television spots created by none other than Crispin Porter + Bogusky to dramatically raise their profile among the general public.

In particular three [now] infamous ADs: the Tibet spot with Timothy Hutton, the Rain Forest spot featuring Elizabeth Hurley, and the Save the Whales spot with Cuba Gooding Jr have caused an enormous stir online and in the news for their bewildering, perhaps unintentional, tone.

I’m really at a bit of a loss to understand the logic behind these spots (perhaps get people talking?) so rather than reiterate the overwhelming negative impression these ADs left upon people, let’s examine Groupon’s intent. Explanation from Groupon’s official blog:

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”)?
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. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.

If I’m reading the above explanation correctly, Groupon were trying to be clever, perhaps too clever, with audiences. Unfortunately the ‘PSA-style-mock concept’ backfired incredibly. Most people, certainly the semi-inebriated football fans who initially saw these spots during the game, were perplexed and generally put-off by what they saw. Groupon’s response seemed ambivalent to the negative feedback circulating the Twittersphere.

Sure, we all get what Groupon were trying to say with these ADs but ultimately clever only works where trust already exists. Groupon’s sheer lack of history and brand recognition among consumers perhaps explain why these ADs have been so widely condemned.

As one of the popular re-Tweets of the day goes, “Groupon have achieved the unique feat of paying 3 million to lose customers who previously loved them”. Still, it’s quite impressive to think a 2-year old Internet startup are able to fork out this kind of dough for 30-second spots during the Super Bowl—arguably the single most expensive event to buy advertising time.

As the saying goes, live and learn, and Groupon will almost certainly live to advertise another day.

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