Where Groupon's Super Bowl Ad Went Wrong

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Quick, what advertiser holds the record for minimal amount of time to take on global politics, possibly upend a deal with mega-market China, draw accusations of  belittling cultural oppression while promoting a brand in front of about 100 million people?

Answer: It may be Groupon, who managed the above in about thirty seconds.

The ad, which aired during the Super Bowl, built on two previous ads that took on global issues like dwindling whale populations or the Brazilian rainforest, but then jumped over to humorous spins (i.e. cutting away from shots of bulldozers flattening trees to model Elizabeth Hurley touting spa discounts, saying "but not all deforestation is bad"). This one opened with shots of Tibetans and a voiceover that talked about a threatened people and culture swiftly moved to scenes within a Chicago Himalayan restaurant where actor Timothy Hutton essentially shrugged off Tibet's woes because in Chicago "they still whip up an amazing fish curry." Plus, with Groupon, an internet service that crowd-sources discounts, he could get the curry on the cheap.

Detractors were quick to log into their Twitter accounts and vent their rage, but Gawker's Max Read, an initial critic, says he had an "Oh" moment after speaking with a rep from the Internet company. It ends up that Groupon buried the lead--the Hutton ad, like the one featuring Hurley, is part of a fundraising campaign called Save the Money that matches donations to one of three causes (more are pending). Saving the whales and the Brazilian rainforest are two of the current causes, and Hutton's ad was meant to call attention to cheap deals as well as the site's campaign to support The Tibet Fund's humanitarian aid mission. For Gawker's Read, this additional information changes things. For him, the ad was no longer offensive, but simply stupid. But it did leave him wondering: "how hard would it be, white text on black background with the donation website address? Five seconds would be more than enough."

But does this added information make things better? Critics have started to weigh in on the ad and its possible impact beyond becoming the latest Kenneth Cole #Cairo moment.

  • It Wasn't That Bad  ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick says  "The joke is on anyone who really cares. It came across as the kind of out-of-touch humor that overprivileged, spiritually mean, advertising industry creatives (specifically, the kind that kids refer to as "douchebags") would come up with. Another perspective: As Rabbi Eliyahu Fink said on Twitter tonight, "Amazing. More people are offended by Groupon's ads than the coarse objectification of women in EVERY SINGLE OTHER AD!"
  • Good One, Groupon  Advertising Age's Ken Wheaton-- who previewed the 30-second spot before it officially aired liked the ad. He said the morose this-is-bad lead in had him thinking "'now the social-cause crew has invaded Super Bowl advertising to guilt-trip me about something else. Let me drink my beer and, further, GET OFF MY LAWN.' But, no! Cut to Hutton sitting in a restaurant and saying, 'But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought a Groupon.com, we're each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.' Good one, Groupon."
  • Total Fail  Ogilvy and Mather's SVP of Digital Strategy Rohit Bhargava Tweeted "Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them."
  • New Bar for Stupidity  CEO of Spil Games Asia and angel investor Marc van der Chijs says Groupon probably cost itself the Chinese market. "They dug a big hole for themselves to fall into: how stupid can you be to air a pro-Tibet commercial during the Superbowl to promote your company?" he asks, adding,  "Not only does it upset a lot of their US customers, but it may get Groupon China in trouble as well. Tibet is one of the most sensitive issues in China and whatever you think about it, you should not touch it as a foreign company if you want to run a business here."

Here's the ad:

Elizabeth Hurley's ad:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.