Amid a myriad of star-studded, quirky, and silly commercials that aired during the Super Bowl, one third-quarter ad for the online coupon site Groupon stirred the pot unlike any other. By now everyone knows the ads. Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth Hurley, and Cuba Gooding Jr. casually reference global causes before turning to Groupon to enjoy some of the nicer and more enjoyable things in life.
In hiring Christopher Guest as the director, Groupon knew what they were getting into and it has to be believed they got what they wanted. Guest is a most accomplished and funny ‘mocku-mentarian,” succeeding at poking fun at exaggerated stereotypes of self-serious people such as folk musicians (A Mighty Wind) and dog lovers (Best In Show). And now he has teased football fans, who apparently can’t take a joke.
With the ads, we have seen the best and worst that social media has to offer. At its peak, the online realm fosters debate, promotes curiosity, and gets people thinking outside their comfort zone. The Groupon videos are being talked about on Facebook and Twitter, embedded on blogs and forwarded through email, as well they should.
However in this case, there is too little debate and far more derision. The easiest thing for people to do online is to wage an attack on someone or something. Users get far more motivated to post negative comments than they do positive ones, with the added bonus of being faceless and nameless. There is a comfort in numbers, that if many others are upset and bothered, it takes less courage to post dissent online. Check out the message board for some great examples.
Perhaps Lori N. summarizes some of the lunacy in the blogosphere with this post:
More than offensive, this campaign is stupid. Unless your target is frat boys. Then it’s brilliant. I’ll be using Bloomspot, Yelp Deals and Living Social Deals and all the others. – Former Groupon Groupie
It is at all curious that this user is opting for other bargain websites instead of using money to say, donate to charity?
That comment nears the real reason why people are upset at the ads. The NFL and Fox make sure not to run commercials that are controversial or for private causes. Every year ads for PETA are denied, and rarely is there anything that evokes a contemplative or serious response. The one ad that comes to mind this year is the lengthy and dramatic commercial about Detroit and Chrysler featuring rapper Eminem, but that focuses more on future luxury than past economic hardship.
It is because the Super Bowl doesn’t feature serious ads that Groupon hit a hard wall of protest. Football fans don’t want to think seriously, and don’t want to have to consider the world outside the game. The Groupon ads weren’t offensive (unless you’re the Chinese government, and they get offended by everything and everyone who uses the word, ‘Tibet’), they simply provoked thoughts and ideas of causes serious and important, far removed from the mindlessness and entertainment of football.
Easily lost and ignored is the fact that Groupon past and present donates to charitable causes related to their current commercials. During the Super Bowl, they used Twitter to direct people to savethemoney.org, where they showcase the ads and respective charitable causes. Indeed they are not mentioned in the spots, but do they have to be? Those who want to be upset would unlikely be swayed by a mention of charity at the back end of the spot, and it would also take away from the cleverness, yes cleverness, of spoofing pitches for charitable causes. The need to mention charity would allow naysayers to further accuse Groupon of profiting off distress, something they are doing anyway.
The ads are neither simple nor direct. They not only ambush viewers by leading them to a surprise ending, but they elicit discomfort and uncertainty, reminding people of terrible things around the world. Perhaps if it had someone getting hit in the crotch with a carbonated beverage or being tackled by a dog, there would have been a happier response.
This writer may be alone, but I am surely looking forward to the next Groupon ad featuring Sheryl Crow.
Check out the argument against Groupon and the current three ads here at Social Times.