Groupon blunder at the Super Bowl: The aftermath

Humour is a tricky beast. Sometimes it can be the making of an ad; at other times, the breaking. This is a lesson that Groupon has learned the hard way. When their 'tongue-in-cheek' ad screened at the Super Bowl on Sunday, the crowd was horrified as actor Tim Hutton uttered the phrase: "The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on Groupon.com we're getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago."

As bad jokes go, this is a corker.

Try and envision the brainstorm where the concept was first mooted. "I know!" says some bright spark. "Let's really push the envelope. Let's talk about Tibet, show pictures of cloud-covered peaks, reference the political instability - and then let's talk about how middle class Americans don't really need to worry about that crap, because they're getting authentic Tibetan food for half price!"

How - how - did that one get through?

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason has taken a real battering from the press. He's decided to pipe up and defend the campaign. But should he have swallowed the criticism and gone for an apology instead? Judge for yourself. Here's his letter to the media (with a few Smarta asides):

I've been spending the day listening to the negative feedback about our Tibet Super Bowl commercial, and want to take a crack at explaining why we created this campaign.

We take the causes we highlighted extremely seriously - that's why we created this campaign in partnership with many hallmark community organizations, for whom we're raising money at SaveTheMoney.org [SMARTA says: By seemingly poking fun, you were actually using a sophisticated psychological ploy to highlight the issue, using humour as a pseudo-inverted satirical metaphor for the general American apathy towards the cause. Why didn't we think of that?)

Groupon's roots are in social activism - we actually began as cause-based website called The Point, and we continue to use Groupon to support local causes with our G-Team initiative. In our two short years as a business, we've already raised millions of dollars for national charities like Donors Choose and Kiva [Smarta says: You've also invested millions in a distasteful and ultimately counter-productive Super Bowl ad campaign. Money that could, as we speak, be saving lives and changing attitudes. End of sermon].

When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify antisocial behavior - like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women. Unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously.

Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it's cool to kill whales. In fact - and this is part of the reason we ran them - they have the opposite effect. [You're offending the public for its own good. Understood.]

The firm that conceived the ad, Crispin Porter & Bogusky [SMARTA says: Passing the buck. Nice], strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands. When they created this Hulu ad, they highlighted the idea that TV rots your brain, making fun of Hulu. Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon. [This is a terrible explanation. 'People who spend their money on the trivial items on Groupon are ignoring wider world issues'. Why would you alienate you customer base by -essentially - calling them self-serving, capitalist spendthrifts?]

Why make fun of ourselves [And your customers...]? Because it's different - ads are traditionally about shameless self promotion, and we've always strived to have a more honest and respectful conversation with our customers. We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes - even if we didn't take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?

We took this approach knowing that, if anything, they would bring more funding and support to the highlighted causes. That's why organizations like Greenpeace, buildOn, The Tibet Fund, and the Rainforest Action Network all decided to throw their support behind the campaign (read Greenpeace's blog post here). In fact, the feedback led us to make changes to the end of our ads that further encourage our fundraising. To that point, if the ads affected you, we hope you'll head over to SaveTheMoney.org and make a donation (which we'll match) - we're hoping to raise a lot of money.

The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers - it's bad business and it's not where our hearts are.

Methinks Mason doth protest too much. I suppose a whole-hearted apology would have been an admission of guilt. However, I'm not sure about this reasoning. It seems strange that he doesn't even admit that the advert may have been unclear on the points he raises.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this gaffe will affect Groupon's $6bn valuation. And certainly, as today's deals poured into my inbox, I browsed the offers with no less interest. Didn't buy anything though. My stomach twisted slightly at the idea of spending £66 on a 'chocolate experience' when farmers in third world countries are still receiving a pittance for their cocoa.

Well done, Groupon.

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