Groupon Scrambles to Answer Tibet Ad Criticism

There’s an irony in the fact that Groupon, a company that grew out of a platform for social causes, is accused now of crass insensitivity to social causes.

The hot daily-deals startup intended to make the Super Bowl a coming out party for America, with ads before the game and during it. Instead, it got torrents of criticism on social media sites for a commercial, starring actor Timothy Hutton, which poked fun at celebrity social cause commercials. The spot noted the travails of Tibet, a pet cause of many Hollywood celebs, before segueing into a pitch for saving money at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago.

Groupon meant the spot’s message to convey that collective action lets consumers save money to donate to causes like Tibet. In fact, the campaign Web site asks people to donate to The Tibet Fund, a charity dedicated to employment opportunities for Tibetan refugees. Groupon will match the first $100,000 of donations. It has the same program in place for charities linked to the causes of the other commercials like whale preservation and rain forest protection.

Groupon is recasting its spots to include a call to action to its site that requests the donation. Most consumers, it seems, didn’t know about the site. In New York City, for instance, just 86 people have given to The Tibet Fund through the Groupon page.

The controversy shouldn’t come as a shock to Groupon. Poking fun at Tibet, where up to a million people have died due to Chinese occupation, according to some estimates, is a risky business. Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency hired for the spots, is known for sowing controversy. It caused a mini-furor in December 2008, for example, when it ran a Whopper Virgins campaign for Burger King, which showed it bringing Whoppers to indigenous populations. Groupon CEO Andrew Mason is said to be a fan of the agency for another controversial Burger King campaign: Whopper Sacrifice, where CP+B invited people to unload Facebook friends in exchange for a free burger. Facebook quickly shut the application down.

Groupon meant the ads to introduce itself and explain its history in collective action. It didn’t begin as a daily-deals site, but as, a platform that allows people to band together to take action on issues. Mason came up with the idea for ThePoint while a graduate student in public policy at Northwestern University. It was only under pressure to find a revenue model that ThePoint spawned Groupon in November 2008.

Mason is also working on a blog post explaining the company’s ads. Mason was involved in the ad campaign, according to agency sources. The young company founder is known for his offbeat sense of humor. He responded to The New York Times request for comment on Google’s $6 billion acquisition offer, saying that he would speak “only if you want to talk about my other passion, building miniature dollhouses.” The ads were meant to evoke this oddball brand of humor that’s imbued in the company.

A source at the company acknowledged it didn’t do a great job with the ad, noting its message was “a lot to ask from a consumer you met 30 seconds ago.”

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