Monday, February 7, 2011

On Groupon, and why we want to buy from ourselves

I spent Super Bowl Sunday at my father-in-law's house, with my netbook, alternating between watching the game and following the conversations - both on the game, and on the advertising.

I hadn't checked out any of the ads before the game, but if I had, I would have seen this ad that was posted on February 3.

As it turns out, I didn't see the Groupon Tibet ad until it actually aired during the Superbowl, and I posted this tweet:

groupon advertised. is google? #brandbowl

As you can see, my major observation at the time was that Groupon had snagged a Super Bowl ad spot, while as far as I knew, its former acquirer-wannabe had not. Other than a mild chuckle, I didn't really have any other observations about the ad.

As it turns out, my view on the ad were in the minority. I continued to monitor the Twitter feed, and posted this follow-up:

ooh, people are incensed at the groupon ad. that will effectively boost the brand. #brandbowl

Here are a few examples, tweeted during the Super Bowl itself. @copyblogger:

Did Groupon just make light of the political struggle in Tibet? Who wrote the ad, Kenneth Cole? #brandbowl

And @daveixd:

I actually think that I'll never use #groupon again after that tasteless commercial. #advertising #fail #superbowl

But then further reflection revealed a little more about the ad. @davidrisley:

Looks like @groupon scrambled up a Tibet charity fund. Wonder why. ;-)

Yes, upon further investigation, if you followed the link, you'd discover that Groupon was encouraging its members to donate to The Tibet Fund, as well as to other organizations that were mentioned in the Groupon ads. And Groupon is matching the donations.

Needless to say, Groupon didn't suddenly whip up these charity funds after the ads aired (note Risley's smiley face). It was all part of the plan from the beginning, and if any of us had bothered to read Groupon's February 6 post, we would have known what was going on.

This year, we realized that in spite of how much we’d grown, a ton of people still hadn’t heard of Groupon, so we decided to give in to our Napoleon complex and invade the rest of the world with a proper Super Bowl commercial.

The trouble was figuring out what to do and with whom to work. We had tried working with creative agencies before and had never been that impressed. Our peculiar taste in humor made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked. This time around, we had better luck with the ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We really admired some of the work that CP+B had done in the past, so we gave them a shot at pitching us concepts, and they came up with an idea we couldn’t resist blowing millions of dollars on.

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site ( and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world....

And if you’ve saved enough money for yourself and feel like saving something else, you can donate to mission-driven organizations that are doing great work for the causes featured in our PSA parodies.

All right and fine, except that many people who saw the ads for the first time during the game didn't, in Groupon's words, understand their "peculiar taste in humor."

Why did this ad (and the others) yield such a passionate negative response? Quite simple. We want to do business with companies that have the same values that we do, and many people took the Groupon ads to mean that Groupon didn't share their values.

Obviously, in a multi-cultural world, people do not have identical values, and therefore no one business can please everyone. For example, if you're a Birkenstock-wearing vegetarian who believes that the death penalty is only permissible for unborn children and people who insult the Dalai Lama, then you're probably not going to like the Groupon ads. On the other hand, if you're a gold-hoarding, gun-toting survivalist who believes that all of the Bible is inerrant except for the commie liberal parts, then you probably skipped the Black Eyed Peas performance during halftime.

And the Groupon ads weren't the only televised event on Sunday that yielded such a passionate response. On Super Bowl Sunday, the President of the United States normally makes an appearance on the network that is televising the Super Bowl. It can be a win-win for both, since the President gets a huge audience, and the network has something to lure non-sports fans to watch the event. If one of the old three networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) is airing the event, then obviously the network's news department talks to the President. The Fox Network itself doesn't have its own news organization, so it called upon its sister network, the Fox News Channel, and one of its hosts, Bill O'Reilly.

Hmm. Bill O'Reilly. Barack Obama. Do you think that the entire Super Bowl watching audience shared the same views about THAT interview?

Needless to say, reactions ranged across the entire spectrum. The ones that I saw included comments about how Fox was asking pointed questions when Obama just wanted to enjoy the game, or why Fox was foisting Obama on the viewing audience, or why Fox didn't nail that commie when they had the chance to do so.

As for me, I was fine with the Obama interview. Both parties proceeded as expected, and were reasonably courteous to one another despite their differing views. And, needless to say, I was fine with the Groupon ad, and I personally thought that the Chrysler/Eminem ad was a masterpiece.

However, as for that Doritos commercial in which the insane guy licks another guy's finger, then tears the pants off of another guy - that was over the line.

So how can businesses develop advertising campaigns that please me - whoops, I mean please everybody? Or should they?
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