How Groupon Became a PR Case Study

Some 55 years from now when they prepare to play the 100th Super Bowl and start counting down the memories of the first 100 games, commercials will play a large role in the historic review.  Right at the top of case studies of the worst Super Bowl ads will be the infamous Groupon Tibetan ad from this past Sunday.

 The ad created by Crispin Porter & Bogusky and featuring actor Timothy Hutton, looks like a simple public service ad for Tibet and human rights issues. It was intended to be a takeoff on Public Service Announcements, and was intended as a satire on the ambivalence of Americans towards tragedy. 

 “The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy,” Hutton says.  After watching the mountains and surrounding Tibetan landscape and seeing native Tibetans, the camera closes in on one individual. Hutton then says, “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” It turns out the man was a waiter serving Hutton at the Himalayn restaurant in Chicago—where the actor and 200 others got $15 off a $30 meal.

The response was immediate, especially for those monitoring Twitter, and it wasn’t pretty. The ad was lambasted as being insensitive to the plight of the people of Tibet.  Many fans of the Groupon site even stated they would cancel their subscriptions. We were among those expressing outrage as @imediapr tweeted immediately after the ad hit:

Timothy Hutton you should be ashamed of yourself
Why the huge outcry? How could Groupon have missed the mark so badly, especially when it was supposed to highlight the company’s Save the Money charitable donation-matching campaign? Tibet was actually one of the four charities the Fund assists.

However, spending $3 million for a Super Bowl ad that was a parody of a PSA and never conveyed the charitable intent of Groupon was a terrible disconnect.  Most likely it was a case of a company trying to cram too much information into one commercial.

Whet Moser outlined the confusion associated with the ad in his The 312 Blog on Chicagomag.com:

Back in October, Groupon received $3.5 million from Illinois—which, if you haven’t heard, is in dire financial straits—shortly before turning down a $6 billion buyout offer from Google. Last night the company spent about as much as it got from the state on a Super Bowl ad that’s currently living in infamy.

The ad doesn’t say anything about Groupon’s charitable outreach, which probably explains a lot of the wildly negative reaction. To see that their heart might be in the right place, you have to go to their website:

Which puts another step between the viewer and the punch line. Or you could have gone to the bottom of the page, located their blog, and found their lengthy explanation of the creative process behind the ads. There’s a lot of “joke” crammed into 30 seconds; that they felt the need to so carefully explain it makes me think they didn’t think through the impact of the ad.

And there’s still the joke itself. In his blog post on the ads, co-founder Andrew Mason demonstrates that the company is well aware of the tension inherent in it:

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.

While Groupon has become an internet phenomenon, many watching the Super Bowl were probably unfamiliar with what Groupon does. For them, they were looking at an actor offering a public service awareness talk on Tibet.  Only at the end did they realize it was a commercial for a coupon site.  Nowhere was a connection to Groupon’s charitable cause for the Tibetans made.  Instead, many took the ad as nothing more than a tasteless play at attention-getting. 

Thus the  real message was lost. Not a smart way to spend $3 million. Then again, look at the attention Groupon garnered from the spot.  All the more reason why 50 years from now, this simple PSA parody will be part of a case study.

Tom Cosentino

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