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Roeper: Why Groupon ad struck such an off-chord

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Today on Groupon: a great deal on backpedaling!

Sort of.

The sensationally successful Chicago company was dropped for a sack on Sunday when its Super Bowl ad was universally panned as tasteless and offensive.

Directed by master satirist Christopher Guest and starring Timothy Hutton, the ad at first appeared to be a typical public service announcement about the plight of Tibetans, whose “very culture is in jeopardy.” But then Hutton cracked, “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry,” and he boasted of saving bucks thanks to Groupon.


As the Social Media Universe and the mainstream media groaned its disapproval with descriptions such as “tacky” and “horrible” and “tasteless” and “wrongheaded” and “tone-deaf,” Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason posted a somewhat defensive, you-just-didn’t-get-it, classic non-apology apology, which read in part:

“In our two short years as a business, we’ve already raised million of dollars for national charities. . . .

“When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify anti-social behavior — like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women. Unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously. Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it’s cool to kill whales.”

First, if anyone watched the Groupon ad about Tibet and DID come away thinking it was cool to kill whales, considering the ad wasn’t about whales, that person would be a crazy person. Second, I’m not sure anyone watched any ad on Sunday — even that Bridgestone ad with the whale in the back of the pickup truck — and came away with the thought, “It’s cool to kill whales!”

As for all those Super Bowl ads that objectify women: Exactly what causes are they promoting, other than, “Buy our sugar water!” or, “Eat our salty treats!”

And now back to the non-apology apology.

“Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon,” wrote Mason. “Why make fun of ourselves? Because it’s different . . . what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?

“We took this approach knowing that if anything, they would bring more funding and support to the highlighted causes. . . . In fact, the feedback led us to make changes to the end of our ads that further encourage our fundraising. . . .

“The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers — it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”

Right message, wrong stage

Give Mason credit for not issuing one of those, “If anyone was offended, we’re sorry” apologies that puts the onus on the sensitive parties that had their feelings bruised and for essentially saying, “Come on, you think we meant to piss you off? We’re not idiots here. We want your business.”

Sure, there’s a little bit of a self-satisfied tone to the post — here’s how cool we are, see if you can follow along — but if I were a 30-year-old sitting atop a multibillion-dollar franchise, I’d probably be a hundred times more pleased with myself. It’d be difficult not to walk around saying, “You know what the most awesome deal of the day is? It’s ME!”

The problem with the Groupon ad was the stage on which it was presented. If the same spot had run on a website such as Funny or Die or during “The Daily Show,” it probably wouldn’t have caused any kind of a furor. But the Super Bowl is not the place for irony and sly self-mockery. It’s a world where shots to the crotch and chimps in suits reign. The massive audience is lubicrated on alcohol, bloated on snacks and hardly in the mood for subtlety. Whether Mason wants to admit it or not, the commercial was a big bowl of wrong. Wrong tone. Wrong platform. Wrong time.

Will it cause lasting damage to Groupon? I doubt it. Unless we’re all more sensitive than Richard Gere at his most pious, I don’t think Grouponers are going to boycott the company. If Groupon had run a straightforward ad about the plight of Tibetans, nobody would be talking about it today. Heck, the president of China was recently in Chicago, and there was little more than quiet cries of protest over Tibet. Who knew: When Timothy Hutton talks, people listen.

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