Groupon's Controversial TV Commercials

A Super Bowl TV Ad Kicks Up More Fuss Than Its Sponsor May Have Intended

February 7, 2011, 9:47 AM

Feb. 7, 2011 -- Was it a spoof, an outrage -- or an outrageous spoof?

No advertisement from Super Bowl XLV ignited so much controversy as one by online coupon discounter Groupon, which struck many viewers as making light of the plight of the people of Tibet to plug Groupon's services.

The 30-second spot, for which Groupon paid close to $3 million, opens with picturesque scenes of Tibet, as actor Timothy Hutton calls attention to the troubles of its people.

"Mountainous Tibet," he somberly intones, "one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy."

His mood then shifts abruptly to one of jaunty surprise.

"But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on, we're getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15."

Viewers let fly with a blistering salvo of Tweets almost immediately. "I guess Groupon decided to do a funny commercial about Tibet," said one acidic writer, "because Darfur would be in bad taste."

The other Groupon spots made fun of saving whales and the devastation of Brazil's rainforest.

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason professed surprise to the Wall Street Journal at the hostile response.

The ad — one of three aired by Groupon during the game — was intended, he maintains, only as a "spoof" of celebrity-endorsed public service announcements. Groupon takes the suffering of Tibet seriously and intends to raise money for the Tibetan people, he said.

The company then posted this on its Twitter account: "Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers' hearts are warmed by Groupon's Super Bowl ad."

Ironically, Groupon first came into life as a website called The Point, whose purpose was to help activists and others organize and raise money for worthy causes.

Though the Super Bowl ads did not say it, Groupons' own website currently encourages users to donate to the three causes its ads lampooned: the Tibet Fund, Greenpeace and RAN (the Rainforest Action Network). Moreover, Groupon offers to match donations in part.

The donation part of the website went live at around noon Central Standard Time Sunday. Says a Groupon spokesperson, "It has always been the foundation of the campaign. We would never have run the ads without these organizations' support and a way for our subscribers to contribute to their causes."

Groupon Super Bowl Commercials Spoof Causes They Support

No Groupon commercial has yet aired for a fourth cause listed on the website -- fighting poverty and illiteracy by building schools. The beneficiary here will be the nonprofit buildOn. Carrie Pena, communications director for buildOn, says Groupon first approached the charity back in January about participating in a commercial. They weren't told -- nor do they know now -- what the content of the commercial will be. Groupon told buildOn the campaign would be "tongue-in-cheek in nature" and would make fun of "over-the-top celebrity advertising for non-profits." That was it.

Asked if she saw any of Groupon's Super Bowl commercials, she says she saw only one before falling asleep -- the one poking fun at Greenpeace. How did that one make her feel?

"I think that it's great that they were helping raise awareness for Greenpeace and drive donations." She says that if buildOn's arrangement with Groupon works the way she hopes, buildOn stands to get up to $400,000. That's a lot, she says, given that the charity's annual budget is only $7 million.

"It will fund 12 schools in Mali and Nepal and will educate over 3,000 students," she says

Asked by ABC News for comment, the Tibet Fund said it wasn't yet ready to make a statement in reaction to the Groupon ads.

A further irony: Groupon didn't get into the Super Bowl's advertising scrimmage until the last minute. As recently as a month ago, the company had been told all spots had been sold and they were out of luck. They intended to run only pre- or post-game ads.

Then, at the last minute, another advertiser dropped out and Groupon stepped in. Chief Operating Officer Rob Solomon told Advertising Age that Groupon, "after two years in business earning 50 million subscribers to date" felt it was time to use TV to reach an "even broader audience."

Groupon rival Living Social also aired a spot during the game--one that showed an old burly guy beautifying himself with goods and services provided through Living Social deals. It's not known how many outraged old burly guys were affronted.

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