Groupon’s humor has always been somewhat edgy, as I’ve noted before. But many people think that the company, which offers daily online discounts to various businesses in subscribers’ local area, went too far with their Super Bowl ads. One had actor Timothy Hutton proclaiming that “the people of Tibet are in trouble … but they still whip up an amazing fish curry”; another had Elizabeth Hurley announcing that “rapid deforestation [is] threatening” the “national treasure” of the Brazilian rainforest, before acknowledging that “not all deforestation is bad.” (Her ad referred viewers to a Brazilian wax deal.) Cuba Gooding, Jr. quickly referenced the dwindling whale population before hopping on a whale-watching cruise.
Objections have centered upon the argument that these ads make light of serious problems, and they clearly do. But they are obviously satire, so there should be a limit to the chastising that their jokes elicit. (Would anyone level the same criticism at Monty Python? How dare they poke fun at the plague! There was real suffering involved!) The real problem, in fact, might not have to do so much with the substance of the Groupon ads as with their execution.
Firstly, Groupon seemed to be spoofing two different genres—a hard feat to pull off in 30 second intervals. On the one hand, the commercials mocked the celebrity do-gooder, swooping in to tug at your heartstrings (think of those Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA). On the other, they seemed to poke fun at the crass commercialism that often fills less-prestigious commercial slots (think used-car salesman: Buy this! Here! Now! Cheap, cheap, cheap!). The transition was choppy and may have left viewers more confused than amused.
Secondly, the ads, it seems, were counting on a certain synergy between the televised commercials and their online presence; on its website, Groupon has launched a Save the Money campaign, through which users can “buy” a donation to causes (Greenpeace, The Tibet Fund, Rainforest Action Network) connected to those that were pilloried in the Super Bowl commercials. Groupon has pledged to match each donation.
This well-intentioned message-bumbling is reminiscent of last year’s “digital death” AIDS benefit, in which celebrities like Kim Kardashian delivered a last “tweet and testament” then abstained from Twitter until fans donated $1 million to the Keep a Child Alive campaign. The campaign was criticized for its narcissism (glamorous coffin-shots of faux corpses) and mixed message (donate money to bring back a life to save a life?). But the campaign’s mixed reception may also have been connected to a mismatch of media. For the digital death campaign to work, people intrigued by the real-life posters had to go to their computers and figure out what it was all about. For all the interconnectedness that supposedly rules our lives, this was perhaps one step too many—or, at least, a series of steps that weren’t clearly delineated. (The campaign got off to a slow start and was reportedly finished off by a single $500,000 donation.)
Groupon might have suffered from the same problem, with TV viewers offended by the Super Bowl ads remaining ignorant of Groupon’s more noble intentions. Then again, the Save the Money message board is teeming with angry commenters claiming that, despite the company’s ostensible good deed, they are canceling their subscriptions because of the ads’ content. “You need to make some form of public apology,” writes David L. “I am disgusted by these ads,” writes Eli W.
Amid the fray, however, there was at least one dissenting opinion: “Lol, you are all marketing gods!” wrote Caleb H. Intentional or not, Caleb H. has a point: Bad can equal buzz, and, in advertising, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Chloe Schama is the assistant managing editor for The New Republic.