Super Bowl XLV: The People Of Groupon Are In Trouble

Groupon Super Bowl XLV Ad: Tibet With Timothy Hutton

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 ThePoint.com. 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.

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