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Groupon CEO Defends Ads After Social Media Backlash

  |  February 7, 2011   |  Comments

Negative chatter permeates Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube after the daily deal site's Tibet spoof ad.

andrewmasonGroupon CEO Andrew Mason's new blog post stops short of apologizing for his brand's controversial Super Bowl ads. Posted around 5:45 p.m. EST, Mason (pictured) set out to answer people criticizing his company's TV spots.

"Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon," he said. "The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers - it's bad business and it's not where our hearts are."

It was the first statement by Mason since social media users began beating up his social-buying platform on Sunday evening. The daily deals site's :30 in-game spot was either offensive, un-funny, or simply poorly executed, according to countless posts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Groupon's blog.

All of this bad online juju occurred despite hiring Christopher Guest, acclaimed mockumentary film director of "Spinal Tap" renown, to direct the commercial. On the agency side, Groupon tapped Crispin Porter + Bogusky to create a series of three spots that combined spoof comedy and cause marketing while appearing before, during, and after the game. A fourth spot will be appearing with that trio at a microsite for Groupon's "Save The Money" campaign, which encourages and matches donations for The Tibet Fund, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, and buildOn.

The in-game commercial starred actor Timothy Hutton and began by spotlighting the troubles of people in Tibet. It took an intentionally crass turn about half-way through, when the actor started describing a Groupon deal for Chicago's Himalayan Restaurant.

The spot appeared designed to humorously communicate that the money social buyers save with Groupon's vouchers could be donated to charities like The Tibet Fund. But the "Save The Money" microsite never appeared in the commercial, and many viewers were anything but amused. "We're realizing that Savethemoney.org should have been the URL in the ad, and not Groupon.com," a Groupon spokesperson wrote to ClickZ in an e-mail today.

Another ClickZ-Groupon exchange via a different spokesperson offered the following context: "Groupon actually started as a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com). Collective action is in Groupon's DNA and this campaign pokes fun at its own roots."

Ad Gets Skewered on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

That brand message appeared to be largely lost on the 111 million people who watched the Super Bowl, the highest-rated program in TV history.

Before the game began, Mason authored a blog on Sunday to describe the ads, as well as how his company would match up to $100,000 for the aforementioned quartet of charities. Underneath Mason's blog, 260-odd people posted their thoughts. Some were positive, but most were negative like this one:

"Shame on you, your ads and Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The ads not only are stupid but racist and plain effed up. The worst one about the suffering of Tibetans. A disgrace."

The daily deals site posted the following message around 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on its Facebook page: "Support Tibet's largest charity here: http://gr.pn/ejYSM0". Angry reactions such as the following ensued: "TERRIBLE commercial. Did Kenneth Cole not teach you that struggles against oppression are not fodder for your thoughtless marketing scheme?" The poster was referencing Kenneth Cole's controversial tweet last week, where the fashion designer made light of Egypt's recent civilian protests.

Public sentiment wasn't much better on Twitter. Searching the hashtag, "#brandbowl," produced tweets like these: "Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them"; and, "More disappointed with #CrispinPorter+Bogusky than with #Groupon. Can't understand the communication strategy of the ad. #brandbowl #adbowl".

YouTube brought a mix of positive and negative comments. For instance, one post defended the commercial: "You do realize that they have an entire program set up to donate money to charities for Tibet as well as other causes…The whole intent was, you save money using Groupon, then donate what you saved to Tibet, etc." Though, a nearby comment lambasted the brand: "I will not use Groupon again until they apologize. This is just not funny. LivingSocial here I come!"

Daily deals competitor LivingSocial ran a pre-game Super Bowl spot that has garnered far less attention.

Heidi Cohen, president of Riverside Marketing Strategies, and a ClickZ columnist, said in an e-mail that Groupon's ads misfired and may present an opportunity for LivingSocial. "Immediately they connected Groupon with Kenneth Cole," she wrote. "Far from the social media engagement, Groupon's marketers hoped for. Strong crisis management will be needed to help Groupon steer its way through the negative by-products of this ad. Additionally, this most likely will not help Groupon's declining share relative to LivingSocial and will continue to reduce the gap between and LivingSocial."

Anna Maria Virzi contributed reporting.

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Christopher Heine

Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.

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