Groupon Responds to Super Bowl Commercial Controversy [Updated]

Yesterday, Groupon dipped into its $950 million piggy bank and bought ads for the Super Bowl. The group-discount service touted the spots as a way to give in to its "Napolean complex" and "invade the rest of the world" with a proper primetime commercial.

Groupon sure did make a splash at the game, but from all the post-Super Bowl buzz, it's clear the company stumbled in creating the right impression for the brand. One of the spots, which many found borderline offensive, seemed to trivialize the political struggle currently going on in Tibet. In a blog post today, CEO Andrew Mason responded to the controversy, and, in doing so, may have revealed the culprit behind the ad: Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Though Mason took responsibilty for the spot, explaining that trivializing Tibet's cause was never Groupon's intention, the company's founder was clear about who came up with the idea for the commercial: 

The firm that conceived the ad, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands. When they created this Hulu ad, they highlighted the idea that TV rots your brain, making fun of Hulu. Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon. Why make fun of ourselves? Because it’s different--ads are traditionally about shameless self promotion, and we’ve always strived to have a more honest and respectful conversation with our customers. We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes – even if we didn’t take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?

Groupon couldn't say with 100% certainty whether Alex Bogusky, the agency's so-called Ad Jesus, was involved with the commercial. But his former firm reached out with confirmation: "I can 100% say that Alex Bogusky had nothing to do with this campaign," a rep tells us. As reported in a recent Fast Company profile, the agency has been in a transition period since his departure. 

Crispin now, (left to right): Partner and Chief Creative Officer Jeff Benjamin; CEO Andrew Keller; Partner/Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Rob Reilly

With Crispin Porter + Bogusky no longer actually Crispin, Porter, and Bogusky, has the industry's hottest ad agency finally lost its flair? Whatever the case, Mason and Groupon have proved that there's nothing less humorous than a joke explained.

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38 Comments

  • Jullianna Martin

    I think this was one of those situations where the client had too much say/control over what their commercial should be. I had read from one of the company's founders that they worked with several other ad firms that weren't coming up with anything THEY liked. So, it sounds like Crispin Porter + Bogusky settled to simply please the overzealous client.

  • Lance S.

    Having worked in creative professions for more than two decades, I can't even count the number of times I've been reminded not to underestimate my audience, and to never dumb down the message. For years, I actually believed that was sound advice. Sadly, the general tone of the response to this ad campaign has proven that advice incorrect. It saddens me that the general market (and even more so the supposedly more elite demographic of this website) has been too stupid to get this campaign, and is much more eager to pout in outrage than to do even the smallest amount of research on the entire campaign in question.

    The tone, clearly satirical in the same way that many others have chosen to address important issues (from Dr. Strangelove to The Producers to infinite other examples), was apparently above the heads of people watching. Far from making light of the issues in question, the campaign not only satirizes our own obliviousness to them, but provides a. public awareness of the issues, b. a way to contribute to the causes if so inclined, and c. a generous donation to each of the causes on the part of the advertiser. The ads are anything but insensitive: they point out our own insensitivity. The hope was surely that people would then take action rather than sit in their armchairs and comment angrily from a distance. I guess everyone is much much stupider than either the client or agency could ever have imagined.

  • steven sessions

    I agree with several other comments here about the "green" management at groupon. Very sophomoric. It seems actually that many of the dramatically successful internet companies are companies without chaperones. The adults have left the room and the children have gone wild. http://bit.ly/9WNAfQ

  • Thomas Tai

    Groupon. Group off!
    Obnoxious commercials.
    Crispin Porter + Bogusky is also the agency behind the unsucessful Microsoft/Apple Laptop testimonial ads, the talking Volkswagen with the German accent commercials, as well as the "viral" Burger King commercials featuring the smiling Burger King mask. Obnoxious stuff created to leave a bad taste in most adults. If you are not an adult and go for sophomoric sound bites, Crispin Porter + Bogusky is up your alley.

    Like most people who were rubbed the wrong way the day after Superbowl, I unsubscribed especially when their email had a link to show the notorious commercials in spite of the negative feedback.

  • Manny Pratt

    Ben M, throughout history a lot of people have done things to make a buck off of other people's plight. Is there a way to be "just a little guilty" here? Maybe if you aren't the one actually inflicting the misery? Or perhaps if you are, but through a third party? Is it a survival of the fittest thing, where the dumb deserve what they get? Or maybe it's OK if a majority of people don't like the one's in misery anyway. Where's the line?

    Not sure if this campaign is generating business for Groupon, but if so, is spending millions on ads that promote indifference toward a group of people facing genuine horror really what we should call, "working?"

  • Lance S.

    Manny, if you'd bothered to do your research before taking others to task, you'd have learned that an important part of this campaign was the fact that each of the plights featured (Tibet, Whales, Deforestation) is actively being supported by Groupon to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather than pout in outrage, you should be patting them on the back for not only drawing attention to these issues, but also contributing money and energy to their eradication. What have you done for the plights in question? Sat at home and pontificated? I thought so.

  • Ben M

    This ad is working.... Call me average Joe, and this is my thought process:
    Oh wait, this ad is different than the others--> What is groupon?--> Oh hey, I need a hotrock massage for $7 instead of the retail price of $14! --> Man I can't stop thinking about that stupid ad! it's so messed up they made light of the miserable human rights offenses in tibet--> "hey average joe #2, you see that groupon ad, I can't believe they hated on Tibet like that-->"hey, what's groupon? I want half off on a hotrock massage" AVERAGE CONSUMER: 0 AMERICA: 1

  • Abster

    This spot is so amateur hour. Human rights abuse is never funny. Trivializing it for the purposes of making an ad is outrageous, hurtful, and downright stupid. Get a clue.

  • Sonja Brown

    I watched the ad and got the intention right away. Groupon wanted to draw attention to causes and then connect it to the trivial daily interests we all have. What surprised me is that this obvious intention was completely lost on viewers. Next time they'll need to choose - clear social good message or clear humor.
    Apparently the two don't mix well together.

  • Ian Barkley

    Ryan Bannon alludes to something I have been telling friends in the industry for months. That Alex Bogusky is somehow using Fast Company to spin his PR and increase his name recognition for his next venture. To suggest that he was the ad Jesus is laughable. He was a decent Creative Director that had some success in disruptive advertising, but there are kids shooting YouTube videos whose productions are getting as much attention.

  • Dr. Robbie Blinkoff

    As an anthropologist, I think Groupon is among the top social brands in our culture today. Unfortunately, the brand lost considerable ground with their latest SuperBowl ads. Because Superbowl XLV was the most watched game millions came together. Instead of tapping into and increasing this sense of social, the spots created polarized groups. Coke on the other hand capitalized on our sense of social with its open happiness spots.

  • Tim McElgunn

    Saw the ad, turned to my wife and said, "Nice, let's make fun of the atrocities in Tibet to advertise some consumer product...." didn't register who was advertising. Until your article told me who it was. Now I can shift from, wow the advertising universe is a pathetic and useless wasteland to wow, my generation of Americans contains the largest concentrations of shallow, ignorant, arrogant @$$holes in history, and they are in positions of responsibility all over the corporate world. and writing about it

  • Darren Chandler

    To those that think this ad was ultimately a success, based on the 'buzz' currently surrounding it, I would ask, where do we draw the line in being 'edgy'? Each year superbowl ads try to up the ante in outrageousness, and every year we become a little bit more desensitized.

    In private we might make light of serious causes, as a valid coping mechanism in a world with so much bad news. But in public, even individuals have the common sense to know where the line is.

    Groupon crossed that line with these ads, and they deserve all the heat they get.

  • S C

    I think the Timothy Hutton spot is written in such a way that it digs its own grave when talking about “the people of Tibet are in trouble”. Since we are talking about people that really puts a human face on it, coupled with the fact that we see the CU shot of the two children and the old Tibetan man which makes you more empathetic to their plight.
    So at that moment you really aren’t in the mood for a joke nor is there enough levity within the scene to make you shake loose that sad empathy built up in the first half of the ad.

    The Cuba Gooding one is great and the Liz Hurley one isn’t so bad but it is still has a more abrupt transition. The punch line is much better for this ad however, and I think it successfully pulls the viewer out of any distress about the state of our rainforest.

    One ad poorly crafted ruins it for the rest of them. Maybe if the Hutton spot had been the last one seen, the premise for the ad would have carried the "group" on and made that one less of a shock.

    Mr. C

  • Mr. C

    I think the Timothy Hutton spot is written in such a way that it digs its own grave when talking about “the people of Tibet are in trouble”. Since we are talking about people, that really puts a human face on it, coupled with the fact that we see the CU shot of the young children and the old Tibetan man which makes you more empathetic to their plight. So at that moment you really aren’t in the mood for a joke nor is there enough levity within the scene to make you shake loose that sad empathy built up in the first half of the ad.

    The Cuba Gooding one is great and the Liz Hurley one isn’t so bad but it still has an abrupt transition. The punch line is much better for this ad however and I think it successfully pulls the viewer out of any distress about the state of our rainforest.

    One ad poorly crafted, ruins the rest of them. Maybe if the Hutton one had been the last one seen, the premise for the “group” of ads would have carried on and made that one less of a shock.

    Mr. C

  • Maria Ross

    What a joke. Groupon failed not because people can't take a joke or because they didn't get they were trying to poke fun at celebrity PSA's. It failed for the reason that bad brand ads always fail: it went counter to the company's attempting brand strategy. Groupon has been about supporting local causes and business, being a champion of the litle guy in smal business. And then it thought THIS was a good idea? Shame on them for even trying to blame this on their agency as they are the stewards of their own brand, although, yes, the agency is to blame for recommending such a bad strategy. I run a branding consultancy myself and it's hard enough to get clients to pick the good ideas, let alone offer then bad ones. Going for shock, "water cooler chat" value over staying true to the brand and what makes people love it in the first place is just plain bad marketing. I just blogged about this at www.red-slice.com/blog if anyone is interested.

  • Isotpia

    For the past few days I've found myself wondering in amazement just who at Groupon bought in on the advertising pitch that ended up launching those hideously insipid, mocking Superbowl commercials. The only head that shouldn't roll was the person who pitched such a stupid idea and got others to believe that the turd was actually a large, gold nugget.

  • MELISSA MACAULAY FEDERICO

    Is it me, or would it be accurate to say that the "what" and the "who," while interesting, are less important than the "how?"

    What collapse in expertise, perspective and process lead to this [very costly] branding debacle? Did they skip the whole research-test-tweak-test-again thing? Why? (Another important question).

  • Billy Barrell

    Before the ad, I had heard of Groupon. I had seen images from Tibet, and had read about the history of the region, and reports of persecution. My impression of Groupon has not changed; it is still neutral. My awareness of Tibet has risen. I will research more about what is going on there. Tibet wins. Groupon is still Groupon. As far as presentation? It did get my attention. My reaction could best be described in the words of a famous TV personality, and potential Groupon user: Doh!