Groupon Apologizes for Super Bowl Spot... Just Kidding

Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 3:26 PM EST

Daily discount site Groupon prides itself for quirky marketing on behalf of its client companies. When it decided to advertise on the Super Bowl, management thought that a parody of a public service announcement would be just the thing.

Then again, maybe not. A spot that made light of Tibet's situation was insensitive, inept, and got noticed for all the wrong reasons. Groupon moved into damage control... and made things even worse when it proved that a non-apology is worse than none at all.

Not everyone hated the ad. But enough did to make that $3 million ad slot a questionable investment. Unfortunately, the strategy depended on viewers already knowing something about Groupon. The day before, CEO Andrew Mason explained the strategy in a blog post:
The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it's usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. 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")?Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.
Too bad the average audience member had no clue. A swift Internet-powered backlash began. Groupon's first reaction was to hire a PR firm to follow up with the press (including BNET), distributing a chipper "clarification":
The humor was designed to draw attention to causes including Greenpeace, The Tibet Fund, and Rainforest Action Network. 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.Anyone can go to www.SaveTheMoney.org (launched before the ads aired yesterday) and and [sic] help these causes. Let me know if you have any questions about the campaign.
Again, the average person had no idea of Groupon's roots, if that even mattered. Anyone could go to a site to donate money? Too bad Groupon didn't mention it during the ads. So much for the underlying serious message to support the supposed self-parody. Now things were touchy. Mason had to address the criticism head on. And he did, by driving right into the maelstrom.

His blog post yesterday was a prime example of how not to apologize. Mason was defensive, claimed that other advertisers are worse, excused the company's actions, and even talked down to the audience of what should have been an apology:
We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes â€" 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?
In other words, you blockheads, you didn't get the irony, don't appreciate that we've raised millions for charity in the last couple of years, and don't see that we were right and made things better.

Mason is young and has yet to learn practical lessons in the importance of humility. Even when you are sure you said one thing, when millions say otherwise, perhaps the problem is in your communication, not their hearing. If you have to write a 446-word defense of a commercial, offering the back story that someone needed to understand the ad, perhaps the spot actually ... sucked. And if you think everyone will come and read your defense, maybe you need to reassess your own self-importance in a much larger world.

Related: Image: Flickr user butupa, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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