The Groupon Super Bowl Ads: Anatomy of a PR Disaster

Groupon’s self- and audience-satirizing ads have upset a lot of people, even if their intent was charitable. What went wrong: the medium or the message?

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.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened. During the game, the company ran an ad produced by Crispin Porter + Bogusky (which recently lost “advertising’s Elvis”). It’s an uncomfortable satire of Americans consumer addicts’ ambivalence towards tragedy—in this case, the ongoing political repression in Tibet—in order to draw attention to their Save the Money charitable donation-matching. In the case of Tibet, one of four charities they’re featuring is the Tibet Fund. It’s a very strange ad:

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 punchline. 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.

It’s also worth considering an alternate universe in which they hadn’t run the Tibet ad and had just gone with whales and rainforests:

That ad didn’t get nearly the blowback that the Tibet ad did, despite being almost identical in concept and execution, nor did the Elizabeth Hurley ad which ran during the postgame episode of Glee. Which points to an important aspect of the controversy: it’s much, much harder to make jokes about ongoing human tragedy—no matter the nature or purpose of the joke—than it is the destruction of the natural environment, for better or worse. Had they stuck with safer targets, perhaps the audience would have made it through the immediate revulsion and moved on to the multiple steps of the concept. Personally speaking, even after I figured out what they were doing, I was still left with a bitter aftertaste of WTF. Perhaps that’s unfair, but I suspect that’s how most people work. It’s very hard to overcome an initial reaction that strong. The nature of the joke left Groupon with a high bar to clear, and the structure of the joke pushed it higher still.

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.

It’s not just that making jokes based in human tragedy is hard. Satirizing one’s own privilege—and the guilt it engenders—is hard. That’s why I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the popular blog Stuff White People Like. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s sort of like Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck if…” shtick for urban, urbane white people.) It’s well-crafted and frequently incisive, but there’s a substantial difference between people wresting control of negative stereotypes for themselves and people chuckling at the markers of their socioeconomic triumph. There’s a fine line between self-deprecation and an ironic victory lap, and I still don’t know on which side of the line SWPL falls.

I know on what side of the line Groupon’s ads were trying to fall, but they have a lot of layers that are hard to balance. Did they just spend millions of dollars to advertise their hundreds of thousands of dollars in noblesse oblige? Or to transfer guilt-feelings about the nature of the company onto the viewer? Or were they just trying to do the right thing while staying within their twee sensibility?

I don’t know. I do know, however, that the ads tried to do a great number of very difficult things, and perhaps as a result did none of them well. It’s hard to scale twee, much less make it profound; it’s hard to use humor to combat tragedy, at least from a safe distance; it’s hard to ironically reflect on your own privilege; it’s hard to burnish your charitable reputation in the context of an impossibly expensive ad buy. And the ads ask a lot from viewers while simultaneously making their presumed unwillingness to do anything the butt of the joke. Whether or not the hostile reaction is justified, it’s no surprise.

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