Mea Culpa Marketing: Were Groupon’s Gaffes Intentional?

Were Groupon and Kenneth Cole’s actions genuine marketing mistakes with authentic responses? Or master-crafted publicity stunts? Is it okay to be politically incorrect for a good cause?


Groupon had an opportunity few start-ups will ever see – the capital to land a $3 million ad spot on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the last remaining vehicles for introducing their brand to mainstream America all at once. As we know, it had the chance and it blew it-big time. Or did they?


The most offensive Groupon ad opens with scenes from Tibet and a voiceover discussing human rights abuses, before it shifts to the more banal image of actor Timothy Hutton showing his Groupon coupon to a waiter at a Tibetan restaurant featured on the site. The ad seems to be saying, “Don’t worry about what’s happening over there. We’ll selfishly indulge ourselves – right here.” The dismissive tone is particularly strong given Groupon’s status as a purveyor of local deals.

The joke, supposedly, is on us. Groupon specializes in discretionary purchases like restaurants, spa treatments, apparel and entertainment. The ads were apparently capturing our short attention spans by comparing a world tragedy with consumerism. According to the Groupon blog they are poking fun at themselves:

“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’)?”

Are you laughing yet?


Despite the tasteless humor and poor messaging, it appears that Groupon is attempting to do the right thing. On the company’s site, visitors donate to charities that work to support the various causes highlighted in the ads (Tibet, deforestation and ocean habitat). But if all you saw was the television ads, as is the case for millions of Americans for whom the television was the FIRST and ONLY exposure to the Groupon brand, then the ads would have been nothing other than bizarre and confusing, even offensive.

Yet, the ad touched a collective nerve that caused the donation site to be visited and written about here and here.

I’m Sorry. Now That I Have Your Attention . . .

There is an eerie echo in the Groupon ads with the online outrage that designer brand Kenneth Cole generated last week as the result of a poorly timed and poorly considered tweet:

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumour is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at – KC.”

In the case of Kenneth Cole, the CEO apologized and took a few other conciliatory steps to absolve the brand. Groupon is following a similar path in explaining its position. Perhaps these are early examples of a mea culpa trend in advertising; generate buzz through tasteless, shocking blunders, then seek forgiveness and visibility for your brand once you have everyones’ attention.


PR Stunt? Or Authentic?

Whether intentional or incidental, the Groupon and Kenneth Cole missteps are symptoms of how hard it is to get customer attention-so hard the advertising industry feels it should go low if it wants to aim high. Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, the agency that devised this campaign reportedly measures themselves by, ‘Would the press write about it?’

Given the pressure to make a $3 million investment pay, I can see how a marketing executive might in a moment of poor judgment give the go-ahead for a borderline ad justified with some “I’d rather apologize than ask permission” logic.

But for anyone who thinks mea culpa marketing works, think again. It’s risky short-term thinking. As the saying goes, “You can fool me once … ”

People may be talking about Groupon today, but the question remains as to whether the buzz will build positive, authentic brand equity and sales. The market for location-based coupons is burgeoning, barriers to entry are low, and Groupon just may become “that one that was doing so well until the Super Bowl ads.”


Either way, a bad idea badly executed is going to put both Groupon and Kenneth Cole in more than a few marketing 101 cases on how NOT to use humor in selling products.

Library Journal says Adrian Ott is, “revolutionizing marketing by adding the concept of time.” She is the award-winning author of the book The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy and CEO of Exponential Edge® Inc. consulting. Follow Adrian on Twitter at @ExponentialEdge.

©2011 Exponential Edge, Inc., All Rights Reserved

About the author

Adrian Ott, award-winning author, speaker, and CEO of Exponential Edge Inc., was called “one of Silicon Valley’s most respected strategists” by Consulting Magazine. She helps relentless visionary executives to foresee disruptive opportunities and accelerate market leadership