Blog Post

Super Bowl XLV: The People Of Groupon Are In Trouble

Apparently, executives at Groupon and the company’s didn’t see the fierce reaction to fashion retailer Kenneth Cole’s tweet about the turmoil in Egypt this week. The daily deals site had an ad during Super Bowl XLV that was in such poor taste, it makes the outrage directed toward Cole’s insensitive, tone-deaf tweet equating sales and the Cairo uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak seem mild.

The spot, created by Crispin Porter & Bogusky and featuring actor Timothy Hutton, starts off like a public awareness campaign about Tibet and human rights issues. “The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy,” Hutton’s voice over begins with deep solemnity. After a series of images of mountains and native Tibetans, the camera fixes on a man’s serious visage. “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” It turns out the man was a waiter serving Hutton at a Himalayan in Chicago restaurant — where the actor and 200 others got $15 off a $30 meal.

Get the joke? Well, hundreds of Twitter users didn’t.

In the words of New Yorker writer Tad Friend, who in a tweet, calmly echoed many of the sentiments still building on Twitter over an hour after the commercial aired, “groupon’s tibet commercial was so appalling it made me cancel their daily email; it turned a vague dislike into enmity.”

See the ad for yourself below and let us know if you think it went too far.

Updated: As commenter Jon Garkfunkel pointed out below, Groupon does have a charity associated with Tibet. As Groupon’s “Save The Money” site shows, the site has several other ads with celebrities lampooning popular causes; it’s also matching funds in some cases. For example, there’s Cuba Gooding on Saving The Whales (by going on whale watching) and Elizabeth Hurley on Saving The Rainforest (“Not all deforestation is bad… 100 of us are saving money on a Brazilian wax!”). The site also mentions that singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow has a spot in the Save The Money campaign that will support the building of schools in poor villages around the world with up to $200,000 in matching funds from Groupon and anonymous donors. (A worthy cause, but she might want to check with her agent — now.)

I was watching Gooding’s and Hurley’s spots with my wife. We agreed that they probably won’t attract the kind of condemnations that Cole’s tweet and the Tibet ad did. That’s because the respective issues of the rainforest and whaling aren’t in the news involving current political events where people’s physical safety are being directly threatened — and therefore aren’t among Twitter trending topics that have touched people emotionally in the past few weeks.

Updated 2: On Groupon’s blog, the company tries to explain its motivation for deciding to “blow millions of dollars” on a TV ad. In the past, the company was content with word-of-mouth and search ads, primarily because it wasn’t that impressed with most creative shops. For one thing, ad agencies didn’t get its “peculiar” sense of humor. In spite of all the growth, Groupon decided that it still hadn’t received enough attention, so it seemed like a Super Bowl spot would satisfy that need for greater exposure.

In Groupon’s view, the ads poke fun at the company, since it started out as a philanthropy site called The ads are meant as self-deprecation, noting how Groupon ended up selling coupons, not saving the world.

As far as attempting to help the causes it includes in its commercials, Groupon will contribute matching donations of up to $100,000 for three featured charities – Rainforest Action Network, buildOn, and the Tibet Fund – and Groupon credit of up to $100,000 for contributions made to Greenpeace. Although not an insignificant sum, that’s probably not enough money, but it could help. But the bigger question for Groupon is whether these donations will help it save its image after the initial bitter reaction to the Super Bowl spot.

20 Responses to “Super Bowl XLV: The People Of Groupon Are In Trouble”

  1. What a bunch of pretentious dbags who probably don’t help any real causes anyway. After you donate $100k to each of these charities, then come back and act all sanctimonious. Until then stfu.

  2. Jill Kennedy

    I think the epic fail here isn’t the poor execution of a questionable joke, the deeper problem is the company execs who hit the Go Button on it. They could have pulled the spot after seeing it – but thought it good and (probably) funny enough to run. That’s poor judgment and doesn’t bode well for the future of the company. And… they offer a lot of horrible deals on products that people don’t really want and definitely don’t need.

  3. Mary Beth Jost

    Financial gain on the back of the genocide of a people and a culture is amoral.
    For that reason, not because it is a hot twitter topic, is what makes the groupon ad greviously objectionable and reprehensible.
    Groupon has the opportunity to promote the cause of the people of Tibet by publicly making amends.
    Short of that, I have bought my last groupon.

  4. Michelle Brannnan

    The first time I saw the ad I had no clue what they were trying to at. After watching it a few more times I was still not sure but I knew for sure they weren’t trying to help Tibet in any way simply through the ad. I have now read their blog and a lot of articles behind the ad.

    They did a very bad job of communicating what they wanted people to know. Are the millions of non-industry people who saw that ad going to go out and find out whether or not Groupon supports Tibet? Probably not. They didn’t communicate the fact they were making fun of themselves or that they do support Tibet. And if I am not mistaking communicating is a key part of what we do.

    However, after reading their blog the initial idea of making fun of people for always wanting a good deal is a good idea. I just don’t believe they executed it the right way.

  5. Steve Layne

    One persons sense of humor is not another’s. They took a chance with these ads and they lost.
    They and others can try to rationalize it anyway they want. But they were crappy ads that
    backfired and offended more people than I would imagine they ever thought. As the old line
    goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression” Unfortunately for Groupon they
    used their one shot the wrong way.

  6. I believe the guys at Groupon were trying to get some extra media attention to their commercial and brand. That’s why, perhaps, they attempted to do a controversial pice that would be shown around everywhere. The move clearly backfired, since the commercial wasn’t even fun, or smart. It didn’t even create awareness on the situation in Tibet. It just pissed people off. I read a very good analysis on this on this blog:

  7. Aside from Tibet, I thought when Internet companies ran Super Bowl ads, it was a “signal” of end times for that company. All the deals I am getting nowadays are save $10 on $20, mainly for service providers like hair stylists and spas, wonder if they have already ridden the wave of valuable coupons on the web.

  8. GlennNYC

    If they really wanted to make a joke about celebrity social consciousness, they could have easily created a fake cause and the joke would have actually been funny. My immediate reaction last night was just to recoil from the horrifically bad taste of it.

  9. Groupon’s entire business is exploitation. They approach a business once a year. “We are going to do a garage sale for you. We’ll slash your prices by 75%, give all your services/merchandise away to eager bargain hunters. Oh and BTW we take half your money cause hey, we gotta get paid.” You are left having served hundreds of bargain hunters that never come back. Other that that these people are Saints.

  10. jemihami

    Lighten the f**k up, everybody! I love how people wallow in their own social conscious hysteria, if only as a cheap guise to a contradiction of their own benevolent failures. It’s an ad … get over it!

  11. Ok, agreed it was a flawed execution — USAToday’s sample viewers ranked it near the bottom.

    Bad taste? Not as bad as Kenneth Cole. I cracked a kennethcoletweets joke, but I realized that they weren’t making fun of an oppressed, but rather, in a post-modern way, of celebrities speaking out on causes.

    Consider this — had they run either the save-the-whales or save-the-rainforest, perhaps viewers might have been less offended, and more apt to find out about the campaign.

  12. David Kaplan

    Hey Jon, I don’t think Groupon or their ad agency are dumb either. However, they were playing with fire and the ad I saw didn’t seem to feature their charitable effort clearly. Any attention that charity portion gets will seem like a reaction to the controversy they should have seen coming.

  13. As infantile and offensive as the ad was, cancelling Groupon newsletter is not the only response, flood Tim Huttons twitter, tell HIM what a bad career choice it was to do the ad.

    It is a verified account, that twitter is the real Tim Hutton, arbiter of insulting TV ads…however isnt any discussion good discussion?