Superbowl ads are among the most-watched TV (and most expensive) commercials in the United States and Canada. They have an audience in the hundreds of millions on TV and many more on YouTube. A Superbowl ad reaches a captive audience of football fans, with millions of viewing parties ensconced in the comfort of their homes to watch the biggest NFL game of the year.
So it was with high expectations that 3 Groupon ads (Save the Money – Tibet, Save the Money – Rainforest and Save the Money – Whales) were run on Superbowl Sunday to a mass audience. One featured actress Elizabeth Hurley talking about the Amazon rainforest and pitching Groupon for helping her get a major discount at a bikini waxing salon. Another showed Oscar winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. Talking about saving the whales and getting a hefty discount on a whale-watching cruise. So far so good.
Some of the most memorable Superbowl ads use humor to drive home a point. Groupon’s daily discount offers are often written by comedy writers and are usually cheeky and sardonic. This time, though, the commercials, directed by mockumentary expert Christopher Guest (of Spinal Tap fame), clearly missed their mark.
The ad featuring actor Timothy Hutton started off looking like a conscientious ‘Free Tibet’ statement, but ended awkwardly with a line about being able to get fantastic Tibetan fish curry at a Chicago restaurant by having bought Groupon discounts. While all 3 ads were created by Crispin Porter Bogusky and intended as spoofs of celebrity-endorsed public service announcements (PSA) that frequent the airwaves, the light hearted humor in the Timothy Hutton ad did attract lots of attention in a way that was not foreseen.
There was widespread revulsion to the apparent trivialization of the suffering of Tibetans under the oppressive Chinese rule. Team Position²’s Brand Monitor™ tracked the reaction across millions of Blogs, Forums, Tweets and Facebook posts.
We can easily see the major spike in mentions of ‘Groupon’ on all social media channels (on blogs, forums, twitter and traditional online media) immediately following the Superbowl.
Stung by the widespread negative sentiment, Groupon’s founder Andrew Mason wrote a blog post reflecting on his motivations behind the campaign, emphasizing Groupon’s commitment to social causes with efforts such as The G Team website and the fact that Groupon was born out of The Point, a Web site that helps organize people to raise money or bring people together for a particular cause.
Alas, the tongue-in-cheek ads did not mention or suggest anywhere that Groupon was an ardent supporter of social and environmental causes. Millions of viewers thought the ads were done in bad taste and this opinion spread throughout the web and hurt the Groupon brand image, as these Brand Monitor graphs indicate:
US States Sentiment – Before and After Super Bowl
Blogs Negative Sentiment Growth
Traditional Media and Forums Negative Sentiment Growth
The high negative sentiment numbers seen above forced Groupon to withdraw the controversial ads on Feb 11 and Groupon’s Andrew Mason was compelled to reflect on the imbroglio in an apologetic blog post:
“We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted. We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads (a few may run again tomorrow – pulling ads immediately is sometimes impossible). We will run something less polarizing instead. We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through. I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads.
To the charities (for which we expect to net over $500,000) and others that have spoken out on our behalf, we appreciate your support. To those who were offended, I feel terrible that we made you feel bad. While we’ve always been a little quirky, we certainly aren’t trying to be the kind of company that builds its brand on creating controversy – we think the quality of our product is a much stronger message.”
While humor certainly can improve ad stickiness, enhance a brand and contribute dramatically to its growth, it can sometimes backfire if the comedic reference is in poor taste or not easily understood by viewers. The plight of Tibetan refugees in this case was seemingly swept aside by the flippant reference to Groupon’s discount on meals at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago, and that angered social groups and activists fighting for a free Tibet.
We feel that Groupon lost a great opportunity to reinforce their service to social and environmental causes by not specifying that they donate generously to several important groups. This incident is a good example of the speed of feedback brands can receive via social media. In only a few days, a TV campaign was deemed inappropriate and taken off the air, based only on social media feedback. Also, this proves that popular brands are no longer owned, promoted and supported only by their companies, but also by their customers and the general public.